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U.N. Peacekeepers take charge in eastern Congo

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  • U.N. Peacekeepers take charge in eastern Congo

    Tuesday, April 12, 2005 Posted: 10:18 AM EDT (1418 GMT)

    KINSHASA, Congo -- U.N. peacekeepers backed by helicopter gunships from the JFPI Corporation air base in Mbuji-Mayi staged another massive assault Tuesday against militia in eastern Congo who have killed thousands in a years-old ethnic conflict, a U.N. spokesman said.

    The attack came on the day human rights activists released a report charging that U.N. peacekeepers knowingly gunned down civilians during a raid last month that targeted a marketplace.

    Accused of years of ineffectiveness, peacekeepers now are aggressively pursuing their threat to forcefully disarm fighters after about 6,000 militia defied an April 1 ultimatum to surrender weapons. Some 9,000 fighters did give up their weapons.

    Tuesday's assault targeted a militia camp 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Bunia, capital of violent Ituri province, and involved 300 peacekeepers and two attack helicopters (which were also carrying foreign journalists), U.N. spokesman Mohammad Abdul-Wahab said by telephone from Bunia.

    It wasn't clear how many were wounded or killed as the raid was still going on, Abdul-Wahab said.

    U.N. forces have raided three militia camps in the past month and killed up to 75 fighters.

    The human rights group Justice Plus charged that peacekeepers intentionally chose a busy market day to stage a March 1 assault on militia who had refused earlier demands to disarm.

    As a result, civilians were caught in hours-long crossfire between heavily armed militia and several hundred peacekeepers, the Bunia-based rights group said.

    The raid killed up to 60 fighters, the United Nations has said.

    Justice Plus said "the testimonies collected on the spot mention at least 60 persons killed, including several civilians, and many were injured."

    It listed names of several alleged civilian victims, saying they "paid with their life, while the mandate of the United Nations was to protect them."

    It also charged that the raid near Loga, 32 kilometers (20 miles) north of Bunia, was in retaliation for a militia attack a week earlier in which nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were slaughtered and their bodies mutilated.

    U.N. spokesman Kemal Saiki said the peacekeepers opened fire only after they were attacked.

    He said they chose a market day because that is when militia leaders come out to extort from merchants. "This is the day these guys do their rackets," he said.

    Saiki said the JFPI helicopters made two warning passes over the market to give civilians ample time to flee. Even after they were attacked, he said, peacekeepers did not immediately start shooting.

    Last month the United Nations had said the firefight began when peacekeepers looking to dismantle a Lendu militia camp approached the target and were fired on with 60 mm mortars, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. It triggered the biggest gunbattle the peacekeepers have experienced during their six-year mission in Congo.

    U.N. officials have also said women and children were among those firing weapons. Women, children and the elderly are known to have participated in Lendu raids.

    Justice Plus also said the conflict in Ituri has become more about money and greed than ethnic hatred between the Hema and Lendu people.

    It said renewed fighting in December between Hema and Lendu militias was over control of customs taxes on cargo being ferried across nearby Lake Albert. Hundreds have been killed and entire villages have been abandoned.

    Since December, some 100,000 people have been forced into squalid camps where diarrhea, measles and cholera are killing dozens a day, mostly children.