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65 Killed in Congo Massacre - 2003-10-07

The United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo has now confirmed 65 killed in the latest massacre in the country's northeastern province of Ituri. U.N troops have been dispatched to conduct reconnaissance missions in the area and hunt down the attackers.

The massacre took place some 60 km northeast of the town of Bunia, in northeastern Ituri province early Monday morning. Initially, 23 people in the predominantly ethnic Hema town of Katchelli were confirmed killed by attackers brandishing guns and machetes.

By early Tuesday the figure had more than doubled. The victims were mostly women, children and elderly people.

A reconnaissance mission has already been dispatched to hunt the killers down, and the death count is expected to increase.

U.N troops have been deployed in Bunia under a renewed and stronger mandate since they took over from a French-led European force looking to bring peace the war-ravaged town.

The United Nations force, whose troops will eventually number 5,000, was expected to deploy into the surrounding province of Ituri - roughly the size of Sierra Leone - in mid-September to try to bring peace to the war-torn province. It is the scene of some 50,000 killings since 1999, largely due to conflict between armed ethnic Hema and Lendu combatants.

But so far, the U.N troops have largely been based in Bunia, where they have had to keep a lid on simmering ethnic tensions and launch large-scale operations to sweep up remaining illegal weapons in the ethnically segregated town.

U.N officials have acknowledged the need to deploy quickly into strategic points around the province. They now talk of imminent permanent deployments, although it is not clear when and where.

The U.N deputy force commander, Brigadier General Gen Jan Isberg, conceded in September that a full deployment and control of Ituri could well take as much as six months.

The continuing violence in Ituri is a blow to the United Nations' peace efforts. Only days ago, ethnic Hema and Lendu militia leaders had marched together in unison to spread the message of peace and reconciliation in Bunia.

But already accusations are flying, with the leader of the principal Hema militia group accusing Lendu leaders of orchestrating this latest attack.

The continuing violence is also an embarrassment for Congo's transitional government of national reconciliation, which ended the country's five-year war in July, a conflict that claimed over three million lives.

Both Hema and Lendu militias have been backed by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo in their bid to dominate Ituri's diamond, gold and coltan reserves. Rwanda and Uganda have also backed the ex-rebel movements presently sharing power in the new government.