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UN and Congo Militias Clash, Highlighting Failing Disarmament

U.N. peacekeepers and militiamen clashed Sunday in war-torn northeastern Congo's Ituri district. Two militiamen were killed and two peacekeepers were wounded during the two-hour battle. The battle highlights the deteriorating security situation in the region, and problems in the program to disarm the militiamen.

What was supposed to be a dawn search operation, investigating reports of a mass grave and information that some child soldiers may have been killed when they were trying hand in their weapons, turned into a day-long stand off followed by a two-hour raging gun battle between U.N. peacekeepers and militiamen.

The peacekeepers, backed by two attack helicopters, say they repeatedly tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the stand-off, but were forced to fight back on the ground and from the air when they were fired upon.

Investigators returned Monday to complete the search for evidence of a mass grave and signs of people having been killed in the camp, which was deserted by the gunmen who fled during and after the battle.

But the leader of the FAPC militia involved, Jerome Kakwavu, said that the rockets fired from the U.N. helicopters had also killed 11 women and five children. And he accused the United Nations of illegally trying to forcibly disarm the militias.

Sunday's confrontation is the latest in a series of violent incidents that risk derailing the process intended to restore peace to the mineral-rich northeastern Ituri District, where about 50,000 people have died in ethnic related violence since 1999.

Another militia operating in the region, the UPC, has also stepped up attacks on the 4,800 U.N. peacekeepers based in Ituri, ambushing patrols north of the capital Bunia.

Three months into a U.N.-backed fast-track disarmament program, just 800 of a targeted 15,000 gunmen have handed in their weapons. Analysts say the armed groups are reluctant to give up their weapons after years of running mineral operations and extortion rackets in the lawless corner of Congo.

But the armed groups have also complained that the government in Kinshasa has reneged on many of its promises, including the plan to offer senior positions in the new Congolese army to five members of each faction.

Through ambassadors accredited to Kinshasa, the international community has criticized both sides and called for more efforts to solidify peace in the volatile region. But analysts say they are concerned that Sunday's attack could mark an escalation in the conflict and lead to further attacks on the U.N. mission.

Congo is struggling to recover from a wider five-year war that has sucked in six neighboring countries and killed about three million people, mostly from hunger and disease fueled by the conflict.