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Fighting in Congo's Ituri District Kills Dozens - 2004-07-08

Reports of renewed fighting between militia in Congo's troubled northeastern Ituri district have emerged over the last few days. The U.N. says it has been told about 50 fighters have been killed.

Two months after all seven of Ituri's armed groups signed an agreement to lay down their weapons and join the country's peace process, fighting has broken out yet again in the troubled northeast of Congo.

The U.N. says that during the last two weeks, the FNI and the FAPC, two of the militia groups active in the mineral rich, but lawless district, have clashed in and around various towns north of Bunia, the capital of Ituri.

A spokeswoman for U.N. the mission said that the armed groups are reporting that about 50 fighters had been killed, but the figures are yet to be confirmed.

So far, there are no reports of civilian casualties, though U.N. officials who went to the scene of some of the fighting said that they visited one village of about 6000 people and found it completely deserted.

The U.N. says that both sides have accused the other of having started the fighting. But, for now, the groups appear to have agreed to cease hostilities while the U.N. tries to broker talks to resolve the latest crisis. Fighting between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in Ituri, often backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, has claimed about 50,000 lives since 1999.

An escalation of the conflict in May last year prompted the European Union to send a rapid intervention force and the U.N. mission in Congo has since deployed half of its 10,800 peacekeepers in Ituri. Despite an agreement signed two months ago to accelerate the disarmament and reintegration process for the fighters, fighting in Ituri continues.

Congo's government is struggling to lead the country towards elections, following the end of a wider, five-year war that killed three million people and was officially declared over in 2002.