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Three killed, thousands displaced as army takes on militia group

BUNIA, 18 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Two militiamen and a civilian died on Friday after a seven-hour shootout between Congolese national army troops and Union patriotiques de congolais (UPC) militias in a gold-rich territory of the northeastern district of Ituri, displacing thousands of people.

Most of the displaced, mostly women and children, fled towards the territory of Mudzi Pela and to camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Bunia, the main town in Ituri. Others fled to zones controlled by ex-militiamen in the north of the district.

"I fled naked with my husband," Neema Rebecca, a civilian who is pregnant, said. "I fear returning home at the moment, because [militia leaders] Generals Bosco Taganda and Linganga are only six kilometres from there, and their troops are in the surrounding areas."

She added: "They [the militia leaders] are capable of anything. They do not want militiamen to disarm. Linganga has already killed more than 10 militiamen who disarmed. I am certain that he will return."

On Monday, heavily armed government troops were patrolling the scene of fighting in the Central Soleniama area, 12 km north of Bunia.

Destroyed homes, traces of blood on the ground and spent cartridges at the Myala-Katirogo road junction, 5 km from Central Soleniama, were evidence of the army's operation at the village of Mbriti, where the UPC militiamen, loyal to Thomas Lubanga, had assembled to attack the soldiers.

The commander-in-chief of the Congolese army's operations in Ituri, Col Marcel Ekuba, said there were no army casualties.

He said a company of 150 government soldiers, armed with rifles and other heavy weapons, used jeeps and trucks to repulse the militiamen, estimated to have been in their hundreds.

Friday's fighting came two weeks after the expiry of a UN deadline to militiamen in the district to disarm.

The Central Soleniama operation was the first by government troops aimed at disarming the militiamen by force. Two other similar operations have been carried out by troops of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as MONUC, in Khodeza-Gbulanzabo and Kanzoka areas, targeting fighters of the Front patriotic des resistances de Ituri (FPRI), headed by Germain Katanga.

Several Ituri militia leaders, including Lubanga, Katanda and Floribert Ndjabu of the Frontdes nationalistes et integrationistes (FNI), are under arrest in the capital, Kinshasa. They are being held over the violation of human rights of civilians in Ituri, and in connection with the killing of nine Bangladeshi UN troops in the district in February.

The Congolese army offensive against the UPC started a week ago, when a convoy of soldiers was attacked as they returned from Largu, another UPC stronghold, 40 km north of Bunia. During the attack at Katoto, halfway between Centrale and Largu, the soldiers returned fire and the militias fled.

However, the militiamen later ambushed the military convoy at Miala, with a heavily armed UPC unit setting up a roadblock to extort money and other goods from the civilians. Again, the soldiers opened fire in self-defence when they reached the roadblock.

A militia commander, referred to only as Commander Kiza, died during this exchange of fire. "I recognised the body of the commander - he terrorised people on the Soleniama-Katirogo axis," a witness said in Miala.

Col Ekuba said the army would return to the UPC strongholds on Thursday for talks with representatives of the civilian populations and chiefs of local shopping centres on the deployment of government soldiers to the area.

In efforts to avoid further militia attacks, the business community has raised funds to billet the government troops.

Friday's fighting occurred from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.

On Monday, most of the displaced civilians were hesitant to return home, with many fearing looting and rapes by the forces involved in the fighting.

However, a local chief in Central Soleniama, Jules Simbilio, told the displaced: "It is true a woman was raped by three government soldiers. Goods were plundered. We made arrangements with a captain for the return of the goods to their owners."

A liaison officer for the Congolese army, said the army would continue to carry out investigations.

"Those found guilty [of looting] will be punished and the goods returned to their owners," Lt Gulain Umba, an army liaison officer, said.

The MONUC director of public information, Kemal Saiki, told IRIN on Monday that of the estimated 13,000 militiamen in Ituri, 10,404 had disarmed and were currently in the transit centres, awaiting reintegration into civilian life or the national army.

He said another 2,596 militiamen had yet to disarm and that MONUC figures showed that these were mostly fighters in zones controlled by UPC and the FRPI.

Saiki said the UPC had disarmed only 500 militiamen of the targeted 4,000 who make up the armed group.

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