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Security Concerns Delay UN Tribal Massacre Investigation - 2002-06-12

United Nations officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo say a U.N. team has been unable to begin its investigation into reports of a tribal massacre in the rebel-held northeastern part of the country, due to security concerns.

The U.N. military observers are to investigate accounts of the killings, which reportedly happened in an area of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo that is controlled by Ugandan-backed rebels.

The U.N. team was to go into the area surrounding the town of Bunia, where members of the Hema ethnic group accuse rival Lendus of launching large-scale attacks against them since April.

U.N. observers had hoped to launch their investigation on Tuesday.

Manodje Mounoubai, spokesman for the United Nations Mission in Congo, MONUC, tells VOA the group remained in Bunia on Wednesday after Ugandan forces failed to provide an escort that the U.N. team had requested. Mr. Mounoubai said Ugandan military officials and local residents told the U.N. team there continued to be credible threats against U.N. observers and members of non-governmental organizations.

"They informed the team that they have received reports, 'that Hemas have been threatened by the Lendus and also that this same community is planning attacks against MONUC,'" he said. "We have no proof of this, but this is information that we received. Each time we have information of the kind about the security of our staff, we have to take it seriously."

Hemas say the number of dead from the tribal conflict is as high as 2400. This number was not independently confirmed.

Hemas and Lendus have historically been at odds, usually over land issues. The clashes have intensified since 1998, at the start of Congo's civil war. The war, which brought invasions from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, allowed modern weapons to fall into the hands of the two rival ethnic groups.

The probe into the tribal killings comes as the United Nations prepares to send a special investigator to the Congo to check on the reported massacre of as many as 200 people by rebels in the northern city of Kisangani last month. U.N. officials say the investigator, a human rights expert, is due to arrive in the country on Sunday.