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Congo: At Least 50 Militiamen Killed in Clash with UN Troops

The United Nations says peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo killed at least 50 militiamen in heavy fighting Tuesday. The clashes took place in the lawless Ituri district in northeastern Congo and came less than a week after nine blue helmets were killed in the area by gunmen.

A military spokesman said Pakistani peacekeepers returned fire when they were attacked by gunmen using small arms and anti-tank weaponry.

About 240 peacekeepers, supported by attack helicopters and armored vehicles, took part in the firefight, which is the heaviest the U.N. Congo mission has been involved in. It took place 30 kilometers north of Bunia, the main town in the mineral-rich, but lawless district.

Two Pakistani peacekeepers were injured and have been evacuated to South Africa, but the United Nations said their condition is not thought to be life threatening.

U.N. sources said that operation was a sign that the peacekeeping mission, which has often been accused of failing to protect civilians, would act more robustly in the future when challenged by militias.

Despite the presence of nearly 5,000 peacekeepers in Ituri, the area is still plagued by ethnic conflict and dominated by warlords who have been accused of exploiting the fighting to impose taxes on mining operations and control border trade.

Community leaders in Bunia charged that some women and children had been killed in the operation. But the United Nations said although the militiamen had used women and children as human shields during the operation, all those killed were identified as gunmen.

The Congolese government said it welcomed any moves to dismantle the militias that roam out of control. In the capital, security services arrested the head of an Ituri militia and questioned three other commanders who are suspected of being involved in last week's killing of Bangladeshi peacekeepers.

Fighting this year between the militia foes in Ituri has forced 70,000 people to flee their homes. The fighting continues as Congo struggles to draw a line under a wider five-year war that officially ended in 2003 and which killed nearly four million people, mostly from hunger and disease.