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Militias Use Civilians as Human Shields in Congo

Militia fighters are using civilians as human shields in fighting against hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers and thousands of government soldiers in eastern Congo. Just months ahead of Congo's planned elections, spokesmen for the U.N. force and the Congolese army say they are fighting militias in the far northeast and Rwandan rebels to the south.

With just months remaining before the Democratic Republic of Congo is due to hold historic elections, war still simmers across much of the volatile and mineral-rich east.

The scale of the insecurity was made clear this week when U.N. peacekeepers and the Congolese army launched joint operations against a range of militias and rebels still operating despite three years of official peace. A spokesman for the U.N. mission said militia fighters in the northeastern Ituri district are using civilians in the town they hold as human shields to try and block an attack by thousands of U.N. and government soldiers.

Some government soldiers as well as militiamen have been killed in the fighting, which has been described as heavy. The U.N. has deployed helicopter gun ships, armored personnel carriers and mortar teams.

Long-criticized for standing idly by and failing to do enough to protect civilians, the U.N. mission has taken a more robust approach to try and pacify the vast country ahead of elections, which are due by mid-2006. But they have to support the fledgling army, which is meant to draw from the various factions that fought in Congo's five-year war but remains chaotic, ill-disciplined and seldom paid.

A second on-going joint operation is being carried out by U.N. and government soldiers hundreds of kilometers to the south, where Rwandan Hutu rebels continue to hide in the jungle.

Spokesmen for the U.N. and the army said fighting had taken place and they had chased the rebels from their bases. But they would continue to put pressure on the rebels until they disarmed, the spokesmen added.

Through a long and complicated electoral process, Congo is trying to hold the first democratic poll in over 40 years and draw a line under decades of dictatorship, war and chaos.