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Congo Militias Sign Agreement to Increase Free Movement in Bunia - 2003-09-22

Leaders of ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in Congo's northeastern town of Bunia have come to an agreement to encourage freedom of movement between their communities in the town. The United Nations force that has responsibility for the town's security is expected to supervise and enforce the deal.

The agreement comes about three weeks after the U.N. force took over responsibility for the town's security from a European Rapid Reaction Force.

U.N. officers have pushed militia leaders to negotiate peace agreements. The officers are also planning to deploy the U.N. force into the surrounding mineral-rich province of Ituri, where fighting between the rival militias and attacks on civilians are continuing.

But even this latest agreement is already in jeopardy. Shortly after the agreement was announced, the principal Hema militia, the UPC [or Union of Congolese Patriots] accused Lendus of the murder of a UPC worker. Lendu leaders denied any involvement, and welcomed a possible U.N. investigation into this and other killings.

U.N. officials are forcing the Hema and Lendu militias to work with each other in an effort to put an end to the more than 50,000 killings that have taken place in Ituri Province since 1999. With a new government of national reconciliation in place in Kinshasa, Congo's wider war has ended. It claimed a total of more than three million lives since 1998.

The U.N. troops have been busy since they took over in Bunia on September 1, clearing the town of remaining weapons, and enforcing a no weapons rule.

The U.N. force is made up of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese and Uruguayan troops. They were given a new mandate in July that allows them to open fire in order to accomplish their missions.

Several days ago they did, after being attacked upon finding illegal weapons in the house of the UPC militia leader. The troops arrested three senior UPC members, who were held in custody for a week.

The active presence of the U.N. force in Bunia has created a great deal of optimism that the conflict might finally be coming to an end. But the ongoing tensions and disputes indicate the force's work will be neither quick nor easy.