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Militiamen burn down Ituri village

KINSHASA, 28 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - Armed militiamen have burnt down a village in the district of Ituri, in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, forcing at least 1,500 residents to flee to nearby localities, Rudi Sterz, the interim coordinator of German Agro Action in the area told IRIN on Friday. The affected village, She, is 60 km northeast of Bunia, the main town in Ituri.

"My team found the village burning on Wednesday, and saw a corpse two kilometres from the village," he said. "Armed militias who have been fighting each other in the area since December 2004, using residents as human shields, set fire to the village."

A UN brigade deployed to Ituri confirmed the attack on She. However, the UN mission in the country, known as MONUC, under which the troops serve, has not yet verified reports of a massacre perpetrated by armed groups fighting each other in the region. Both these groups, l'Union des patriotes congolais (UPC-L) headed by Thomas Lubanga and the Front des nationalistes integrationnistes (FNI), have accused each other of attacking She.

"It is the Lendu who attacked the village, but I do not see any difference between the Lendu and FNI," Lubanga said.

The UPC-L (Union of Congolese Patriots-Lubanga) in English is made up mainly of the Hema ethnic group. The FNI (th4 Integrationist Nationalist Front) draws its members mainly from the Lendu ethnic group.

Denying any responsibility, FNL leader Flobert Ndjabu said, "She has not been burnt, our fighters have not attacked, but what I know is that on 28 December our fighters repulsed a UPC attack."

However, a man who fled She on Wednesday for Bunia was emphatic about the FNI's involvement. "FNI fighters arrived at five o'clock in the morning and began shooting, raping, and looting," Richard Pilo, the escapee, said. "They killed my two children."

He said his brother, who had hid before fleeing, counted 70 corpses.

Earlier this week UN troops in Ituri dismantled four militia camps in the district; seized an assortment of materials, and captured seven militiamen, MONUC information officer in Ituri, Christophe Boulierac, said on Wednesday. He said the troops dismantled the camps at Soba, Lelo, Bembei and Mandro on Tuesday.

The upsurge in militia activity has destabalised the nine-month disarmament process in the troubled district, MONUC reported. Its chief of military operations, Lt-Col Cheikh Gueye, told reporters in Kinshasa on Wednesday that the FNI and UPC-L were the most active.

"These two armed groups loot, steal, rape and kill; clearly showing contempt for the population and for the path of peace which the majority of Iturians have chosen," Momadou Bah, the MONUC spokesman, said.

He said FNI and UPC combatants had fought in the territories of Djugu and Irumu, respectively 40 km to the southwest and 50 km to the northeast of Bunia. MONUC said during the last two weeks militias had burnt down 15 villages and the FNI had forced residents to move toward Lake Albert. MONUC said it had launched operations against the militants in an effort to restore calm to the area.

"People are victims of numerous excesses, and this has led to the displacement of hundreds of people," Bah said. "This security situation could bring about a serious food crisis."

He added that MONUC had received several complaints of harassment and would forward these to the prosecutor's office in Bunia.

"The courts are functioning in Ituri, therefore criminals can be prosecuted," he said.

Meanwhile, UN News reported that UPC militiamen fired on MONUC peacekeepers who shot back, killing a UPC-L major they had been trying to arrest near the central market of Fataki, 60 km north of Bunia. He was wanted on charges of human rights violations. Two of his associates were arrested and turned over to the police.

UN troops have begun joint patrols with a Congolese army brigade deployed to the district. They removed two UPC-L roadblocks on the Bunia-Fataki road, UN News reported.

The UN has some 3,500 peacekeepers in mineral-rich Ituri, where fighting has persisted despite the official end in 2002 of the country's five-year civil war, and despite an agreement seven armed militia groups signed with the government on 14 May to disarm and participate in the country's transition to democracy.

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