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Situation Deteriorates in Congo's Lawless Northeast


Local government officials in Congo's lawless northeastern Ituri district say pacification programs there are failing and recently disarmed fighters are taking up weapons again. Meanwhile, human rights sources say government soldiers supposedly controlling the region have carried on the illegal gold trade that enriched the militias they expelled.

After a year in which U.N. peacekeepers and Congo's fledgling army went on the offensive and appeared to be making headway in the notorious Ituri district, it seems like a return to business as usual.

Having largely put their ethnic differences to one side, a loose coalition of militia fighters, known as the MRC, is getting more organized. And local government officials say the failure of a series of disarmament programs is helping the rebels.

They say the lack of opportunities created for the estimated 15,000 who signed up for disarmament programs has driven many to return to arms.

Demobilized fighters are supposed to be given work or training after handing in weapons as an incentive not to return to the ranks of the militias and ensure the consolidation of Congo's peace.

But the U.N. peacekeeping mission confirmed that the militias have swollen in numbers and one source indicated they are now around 3,000-strong.

The escalation of violence in the mineral-rich Ituri district is occurring as Congo heads toward elections, but the dates for the first polls in 40 years are not yet known due to the unsettled situation.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday Congolese government forces who are supposed to be neutralizing the militias have instead become involved in the illegal gold trade.

For years, the trade in illegal gold allowed the continued operation of militias who were responsible for gross human rights violations.

The human rights group says it is concerned that Congo's army is now involved, having pushed the militias out of the mining towns.

Amid the ongoing violence in Congo's east and political wrangling in the capital, efforts are being made to organize elections that are meant to draw a line under a decade of war and chaos.