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Congo Delegation Sent to Province Torn by Ethnic Violence - 2003-10-12


A government delegation in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been sent to the war-ravaged northeastern Ituri Province to show its commitment to bringing an end to the conflict. The mission follows months of violence and a recent massacre of at least 65 civilians.

A parliamentary delegation from Congo's new transitional government of national reconciliation was dispatched on Saturday to the town of Bunia, Ituri's principle town.

The delegation, comprised of the new president of the assembly and 11 deputies, all representing Ituri province, arrived in Bunia only days after a recent massacre about 60 kilometers northeast of Bunia, where 65 civilians, mostly women and children, were butchered by machetes or shot to death. The delegation went by helicopter to the scene of the massacre in an effort to reassure the population.

Fighting between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias has claimed at least 50,000 lives since 1999 and has forced half a million people to flee in the mineral-rich province, which is abundant in gold, diamonds and coltan.

Both Hema and Lendu militias have been backed at one time by the Rwandan and Congolese governments and factions of the Ugandan military in their bid to dominate the province. The new government is comprised of elements of the former government as well as ex-rebel groups also backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

The delegation met on Saturday with representatives of a local political group comprised of various leaders drawn from Ituri's multi-ethnic population. The delegation wanted to convince them that the new government would play an active role in the province's political life, promising to bring back law order and stability, and would punish those responsible for atrocities.

Meanwhile, U.N. troops have begun the first steps of permanent deployment into Ituri, a province roughly the size of Sierra Leone, to try to bring peace to the war-stricken corners of the forested region.

About 120 troops have been dispatched to the town of Bule, some five kilometers from the scene of the latest massacre, in the hamlet of Katshelli. The so-called Ituri brigade will eventually number about 5,000 troops.

But the United Nations' job does not stop there. A recent massacre of at least 16 people about 30 kilometers north of Uvira, a principle town in South Kivu state that lies on the Burundian border 700 kilometers south of Bunia, has focused U.N. efforts on bringing peace back to the entire eastern region of Congo, some three months after the country's peace deal was signed, that had brought an end to Congo's wider war, a conflict that had claimed over three million lives since 1998.

South Kivu is still infested with marauding Mai Mai tribal militiamen, Hutu extremists involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Burundian Hutu rebels, and various other splinter groups and militia, not to mention troops from the Rwandan backed RCD-Goma (Rally for Congolese Democracy) ex-rebel movement, that is now part of the new government.

With a task force of less than 2,000 troops for the rest of the eastern region outside of Ituri, a land mass four times Ituri's size and with an overall mandate of 10,800 troops, some 4,000 less than is mandated for Liberia, a country that can fit into Congo 24 times, the United Nations has its work cut out.

Witnesses of this week's massacre outside Uvira report that the killers were members of Burundi's principle Hutu extremist group. The United Nations has not been able to confirm this.

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