BUNIA, 1 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Militiamen in Congo's Ituri District who failed to comply with a UN ultimatum to disarm will be hunted down, Gen Jean-Francois Collot d'Escury, chief of staff of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), has said.
"If you do not surrender your arms by 1 April you will be treated like armed bandits and war criminals and we will chase you," Collot d'Escury said on Wednesday.
The warning, issued during a news conference, was aimed at thousands of militiamen still roaming in Ituri District in the northeastern province of Orientale. Should the militias resist disarmament, UN troops would seek and destroy militia camps, the MONUC spokeswoman for Bunia, Rachel Eklou, told IRIN.
At the end of February, the UN ordered militiamen to enter a programme, which started in September 2004, to disarm and either enter civilian life, or join the new Congolese army.
MONUC estimates there are some 15,000 militiamen still roaming around Ituri. Half of them are children thought to be associated with armed groups, but not necessarily combatants.
The armed groups still active in Ituri are the Union des patriotes Congolais-Lunbanga wing (UPC-L), the UPC-Kisembo wing, the Forces armees du peuple Congolais of Jerome Kakwavu, the Front des nationalistes et integrationnistes of Floribert Ndjabu Ngabu, the Forces de resistance patriotiques en Ituri, the Parti pour l'unite et sauvegarde de l'integrite du Congo and the Forces populaires pour la democratie au Congo.
So far, about 6,300 militiamen have been disarmed. The National Commission for Disarmament, or CONADER, has confiscated almost 400 rounds of 81 mm shells, 380 landmines, 70 grenades and several thousand rounds of ammunition.
Weary of what may immediately follow the expiration of the UN disarmament deadline, humanitarian aid agencies have decided to scale back their activities for one week.
"One week of observation is a typical precautionary measure," Modibo Traore, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN. "After the MONUC deadline, lots of movement and disorder may arise during the search for bandits and criminals. The displacement of the population may aggravate the situation."
Anticipating this possibility, the humanitarian community increased in March its food aid to areas heavily populated by internally displaced persons. This measure was taken to help cover for the observation period, Traore said.
However, MONUC said it would not slam the door shut on those militiamen still willing to disarm, even after the deadline.
"The doors will remain open until mid-April," Collot d'Escury said.
He acknowledged that the different transit sites set up to process militiamen did not have the capacity to handle the hundreds of combatants showing up daily, which was not really expected.
In addition, militia leaders told IRIN they failed to see how their fighters could be integrated either into the army or civilian life in such a short time if the measure could not be implemented in the past.
"In ten months the UPC has not integrated into the army. How can they integrate in 15 days?" Remy Banyina, a member of the Hema UPC leadership, said.
A leading member of the Lendu FNI militia, alias Commandant Unega, is wanted by MONUC and did not want to disclose his real name. He said MONUC and the transitional government should be more lenient on the disarmament deadline.
"In the Bunia area we surrendered all our arms, but we also have to address our combatants who are farther away and have still not disarmed. We need more time from MONUC," he said.
However, MONUC said the militias had been given enough time to disarm. On 16 May 2003, the militias signed an agreement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to end hostilities and confine their fighters to bases. A consultative committee of armed groups, headed by MONUC, was also established to monitor compliance with the accord.
Ituri's inhabitants are anxiously awaiting the disarmament of all militia. One Hema trader in Buina's main market, Sophie Furaha, recalled how Hema militia raped her sister.
"During the day they walk around like saints, but at night they emerge as killers," she said. "They raped my sister in front of me and my parents - yet they belonged to us. We have suffered too much from these uncontrolled, undisciplined and drugged militias."
Other Ituri residents fear that the situation would not improve even if the militias are disarmed.
"I have no confidence in the Congolese army. They have not behaved well in Ituri in the past," a 17-year-old girl, requesting anonymity, told IRIN.
There are Ituri residents, like Cecile Nyamundu, 70, who believe the militias will only surrender some of their guns.
"If they have five weapons, they will surrender one. With the rest, they will make trouble," she said.
There are already indications that some of the militias have turned to banditry. On 24 March, armed men attacked a vehicle belonging to the NGO Solidarity International on the road to Gina, 50 km north of Bunia, in an area under UPC control. OCHA said the attackers then stole the vehicle. The driver was wounded and an expatriate aid worker maltreated.
Last week a bus with 80 passengers travelling to Beni in North Kivu was ambushed in Kombokabo about 30 km southwest of Bunia. One passenger was seriously wounded, but the bus was able to speed off.
Ituri District Commissioner Patronille Vaweka said the situation was unlikely to improve immediately.
"One has to realise that what has been destroyed in a single day can take years to rebuild," she said.