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Concern Mounts Over Fate of Civilians in Republic of Congo - 2002-05-29

International relief agencies and opposition groups in the Republic of Congo are voicing concern over the safety of civilians in the country's Pool region, as fighting intensifies between government troops and militias known as "Ninjas."

Fighting has raged in the Republic of Congo's western Pool region in recent days as government troops launched helicopter gunship attacks on areas suspected of harboring anti-government militias who call themselves "Ninjas."

The hostilities erupted in late March, when Ninjas attacked a train that was traveling between the capital, Brazzaville, and the port city of Pointe-Noire, an important oil-producing center.

The battles come as Congo holds a series of elections to return the country to democratic rule following three armed conflicts that killed thousands during the 1990s. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who many credit with consolidating peace in the country, was re-elected by a landslide in March.

The presidential poll excluded three of his top rivals, including opposition leader Andre Milongo, who boycotted the election due to what he said were irregularities.

Mr. Milongo ran for a seat to represent the Pool region in the legislative elections held last Sunday.

In a recent interview with VOA in Brazzaville, the opposition leader said he fears the effects that further hostilities will have on the country.

He says, "when you send the army into the interior, you cannot imagine what they would be capable of - especially because the people they have sent there are not professional soldiers. They are people who have been recruited in the towns. They are the unemployed, the drifters who have been recruited. We do not know what they are capable of doing. In my opinion, they are going to create a trauma in the region that will practically be impossible to heal. It is a bad solution. I think we should be more patient and try to engage the militia leader and reach a negotiated solution."

The Ninjas' leader, known as N'Tumi, says he will only agree to a cease-fire under certain conditions.

He is asking for members of his militia to be reintegrated into the military, and for security guarantees for himself. He is also demanding that he be granted the rank of general in the army.

The government says it tried to engage N'Tumi and his followers in dialogue before the hostilities began. It is now calling for their unconditional surrender. In a statement issued late Tuesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said she was deeply concerned by reports of indiscriminate attacks on villages in Pool. The U.N. official said she had received information that men in uniform have raped women, and abducted young men from refugee camps. The fighting has displaced thousands.

Tensions remain high in parts of the capital amid allegations of irregularities in the first round of legislative elections on Sunday. Congo's electoral commission canceled results in several precincts, and new elections were held in nine districts on Wednesday.

The electoral commission disqualified 12 candidates accused of attempting to disrupt the vote. More than 1,200 candidates took part in the poll to fill the 137-seat National Assembly.

Because of the fighting, elections were indefinitely postponed in eight of the 14 legislative districts of the Pool region.