GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO — Up to 100,000 people have fled a town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where government forces have been battling a militia for most of the past week. There are fears the fighting at the town of Kitchanga could become a spreading ethnic conflict.
The fighting around the town of Kitchanga is between the Democratic Republic of Congo's national army and a militia called the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo.
About 700 APCLS militants arrived in Kitchanga in January, when their commander was in talks with the government about possibly integrating his troops in the army.
Those talks broke down and tension between the APCLS and the army regiment in Kitchanga flared into an open war on February 24. The United Nations says the fighting in the town has caused at least 80 deaths.
A civilian who was in Kitchanga that day, Jean Claude Mirumbi, said the fighting was triggered by an ethnic dispute.
He says it is really an ethnic war because it started after the APCLS tried to break up a displaced people’s camp where they claimed ethnic Tutsi had hidden weapons and were forming their own militia. The army protected the camp and fighting broke out between the APCLS and the army.
The APCLS are mainly from the Hunde community, while many of the army troops fighting in Kitchanga are Hutu and Tutsi.
An aid worker for the international charity Oxfam, Eddy Mbuyi, said the fighting has turned into an ethnic conflict.
He told U.N.-funded IRIN news that at Kitchanga, both sides have been targeting ethnic groups by burning their houses.
The fighting does not seem to have spread elsewhere in Masisi, although Mbuyi warns it might.
An APCLS spokesman, Kingi Mbayo, denies it is waging an ethnic war.
He says the APCLS is not against the Tutsi, and has very good relations with the Hutu community. He says it is a political and military movement that includes all ethnic groups.
But he added there is a problem with what he called fake refugees pretending to be Congolese Tutsi who are claiming a right to return to land in the Congo, and he called for the DRC and Rwandan governments to work harder to resolve this issue.
The clashes at Kitchanga are part of the long-running conflict in the eastern DRC, where dozens of armed groups have fought the government and each other for years, mainly over the region's rich mineral wealth.
Despite the fierce fighting at Kitchanga, the APCLS military spokesman, Jannot Makale Kale, says his group is not against the government.
He says the group is ready to collaborate with the army, which it regards as its ally, but it cannot leave Kitchanga.
Meanwhile, aid workers report most of the population of Kitchanga, estimated at 120,000 people, has fled the town and many have taken refuge in the forest.
A U.N. spokesman said there are still about 3,000 displaced people around a U.N. peacekeepers base in the town.