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Fighting Breaks Out Congolese Town

June 7, 2003

BUNIA, Congo (AP) _ Tribal fighting erupted again in northeastern Congo on Saturday, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes one day after French troops began arriving in an attempt to quell the violence.

Hundreds of Lendu fighters launched raids on positions controlled by the Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, the Hema faction controlling Bunia, the capital of the unstable Ituri province.

A U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said at least 2,000 Lendu fighters had moved into the town. Reporters saw dozens of UPC fighters, including child soldiers, fleeing their front line positions and entering Bunia.

Several dozen French troops arrived in Bunia on Friday to prepare for a 1,700-strong international force, code-named Artemis, that is deploying under both United Nations and European Union mandates.

Nana Rosine Ngangoue, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Congo, said U.N. troops were deploying on the road between Bunia and the airport to try to prevent looting.

The French troops were based at the airport Saturday and it was not immediately possible to contact them for comment.

``There is a mass movement of the population heading toward the airport,″ where the United Nations has a base, Ngangoue said.

She said Lendu leaders told the U.N. mission they wanted to reoccupy areas of Bunia from which they had been ousted by the UPC in skirmishes about 10 days ago.

The fighting Saturday was the first serious clash between the Hema and Lendu inside Bunia since the factions signed a cease-fire agreement on May 16. That agreement ended more than a week of fighting that killed more than 500 people.

Fighting between the Rwandan-backed Hema and Ugandan-backed Lendu militias escalated after some 6,000 Ugandan troops pulled out of Ituri in accordance with a deal with the Congolese government aimed at ending the nearly 5-year civil war in Congo.

France will provide 1,000 troops and the force commander, Gen. Jean-Paul Thonier. Five British military officers also arrived with the French troops Friday to study the situation on the ground and determine how Britain will contribute to the force.

The international force will support the 750 beleaguered MONUC troops from Uruguay whose mandate is to protect U.N. installations and personnel but not the local civilian population.

The latest war in Congo erupted in August 1998 after Rwanda and Uganda backed Congolese rebels attempting to oust then-President Laurent Kabila. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent in troops to support Kabila. The foreign troops have all withdrawn, but rebel groups and tribal militia in eastern Congo are still supported by Uganda and Rwanda.

The French-led force is to remain in Bunia until September when it will be replaced by a contingent from Bangladesh operating under MONUC.

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