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Rebel Group Withdraws from Bunia in Congo - 2003-06-24

A rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo says his forces have withdrawn from the war-wracked town of Bunia in the northeast of the country. The departure of the rebels, members of the Union of Congolese Patriots follows a ban on armed militiamen in the town by the French-led multinational peacekeeping force. The French troops were sent to Bunia weeks ago to protect civilians from fighting between ethnic Lendu and Hema militias.

The ban came into effect early in the day, at 0900 UTC. But the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, Thomas Lubanga, claimed that all his forces had left the town hours before the deadline, except for those considered to be his personal bodyguards, numbering a handful of men.

Last month, Bunia was the scene of bitter fighting between rival Lendu and Hema militias that led to the deaths of hundreds of people. Until the French troops arrived in June, the Union of Congolese Patriots militia, who belong to the Hema tribe, were in control of the town.

Bunia is located in Ituri province in northeastern Congo, where four years of fighting has claimed over 50,000 lives. The Hema and Lendu militias have at one time or another been supported by Uganda and Rwanda in their attempts to dominate the mineral rich area, since their invasion of eastern Congo almost five years ago

But with the withdrawal of the Union of Congolese Patriots militia, many civilians are fleeing the mainly Hema dominated northern part of town to seek protection in the town center, fearing attacks by Lendu militia who may strike back to recover positions lost since they were pushed out last month.

There are mixed feelings about the Union of Congolese Patriots withdrawal. Some civilians see them as protectors. But other civilians tell of mass abductions and ritual killings carried out by armed men, during the time that the militia was in control of the town.

With AK-47 rifles selling on Bunia's black market for about $40, many people will no doubt hold on to weapons as a cheap way of ensuring their own security.