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Rebel Congo Factions Fight for Control of Bunia - 2002-08-11

At least 85 people have been killed in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in recent days, as rebel factions fight for control of the town of Bunia.

Officials with the United Nations Observer Mission in Congo (MONUC) say it remains unclear who has control of Bunia. Fighting erupted on Tuesday between factions of the Ugandan-backed tribal fighters and rebels, who previously had been in control of the town.

Uganda, which has traditionally supported the rebels in the Congolese civil war, says its soldiers have been standing by as the fighting raged in recent days. There are conflicting reports, however, on whether Ugandan troops took part in the fighting.

Rebels who controlled Bunia were backed by Uganda previously, but fighting broke out between the Congolese insurgents and Ugandan soldiers. Reports from the scene last week said Ugandan soldiers switched their support to fighters of the Hema tribe, who oppose rebel militias of the Lendu group.

U.N. officials said the fighting appeared to have subsided on Saturday, after Ugandan troops moved in to restore order. The officials say observers on Friday reported finding a mass grave containing the hacked bodies of women and children.

Bunia is the main town in the Ituri region, one of the most embattled areas of the eastern Congo. U.N. officials have expressed concern over battles they say have been escalating over the past six months. The Ituri region was also the scene of the killing last year of six Red Cross workers who were caught in an ambush.

The latest fighting comes after Rwanda and the Congolese government signed a peace agreement on July 30 in South Africa that many hoped would signal the end of the country's four-year civil war.

In the agreement, Rwanda said it would withdraw its 30,000 troops from Congo. In turn, Congolese officials promised to repatriate ethnic Hutu militias who have been attacking Rwandan forces from Congo.

But many people in Congo are skeptical that both sides will honor their commitments, and about whether the terms of the accord can be enforced.

Rwandan and Ugandan troops have been operating on Congolese soil since the conflict began in 1998, when Rwanda and Uganda stepped in to support rebels, in an effort to depose the late president, Laurent Kabila. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia intervened during the conflict in support of the Kabila government.