As the first contingent of French peacekeeping troops begin setting up the headquarters in the embattled Congo town of Bunia, more fighting erupted Saturday between rival militiamen on its outskirts. Reporter Nicole Itano in Bunia spoke to Al Webb in London about the renewed fighting and the task facing the French, who are in the Congo under a United Nations mandate to try to stop the massacres that are reported to have killed hundreds of civilians.
WEBB: Nicole, I understand there's been a considerable amount of fighting that's now erupted in the Congo area. Can you give us a briefing on just where you are and what's going on?
ITANO: I am in the MONUC headquarters MONUC is the U.N. mission here. I am sitting in the city of Bunia, which has been a hot spot for several days. There was heavy fighting all around the headquarters today. It began this morning about 5:00 a.m. outside of town. MONUC, the spokesman for the U.N., said it came from three sides and gradually moved closer and closer into the headquarters. The fighting lasted for several hours and finally died down around 11:00 a.m. We've been quiet since then, but we don't know what the situation will be later today.
WEBB: Is there any indication as to the size the forces involved in this fighting, and also if there are any casualties, any indication of casualty numbers as yet?
ITANO:: We have no information now on casualties. The U.N. is now beginning to go out and look around town and try to figure out what exactly happened this morning. But as yet we have no casualty figures. In terms of the forces, again we know very little, but the town has been controlled for about the last month by the Hema group. The Hemas are a minority ethnic group here in the Bunia area, and their group is called the UPC. What we think happened is that one of the rival ethnic groups, militias from the Lendu tribe, began to try to take back some of the city in preparation for the French arrival in mass later this week or early next week.
WEBB: Have any of the French troops from the multinational force arrived yet, and if so are they involved in the fighting?
ITANO: Yesterday, there was a small contingent of French logistics teams and logistics forces arrived, but their numbers are very small. Right now they are at the airport. They don't have any heavy weaponry or cars with them. My understanding was that they felt like they could not intervene in the situation. They've pretty much stayed put in the airport throughout the hostilities today. MONUC has said that the fighting today will not delay the arrival of more French troops, but again, we don't know exactly when those troops will arrive. And the speculation here is that the groups fighting in this area think that when the French arrive, that will freeze the political situation, and everyone wants to be controlling at least part of the city when the French arrive, and that they can play a role in the political negotiations that happen later.
WEBB: Is there any indication that the rebel forces will be willing to stop their fighting at the time when the French do arrive in force, or is that an unknown factor just now?
ITANO: It's an unknown factor right now. My experience in the Ivory Coast was the French were still armed much more than any of the groups fighting there, and that most of the groups felt that they couldn't attack the French because they simply did not have the weaponry, the experience or the ability to do so. I would guess that in this situation you'd have a very similar outcome after the arrival of the French, because you know, the groups that are fighting here don't really have a lot of high-tech weaponry and are not very large groups we are talking about groups in the hundreds, maybe over 1,000, but probably in the hundreds. And they would not be a match for the 1,400 international troops that are expected to come here.