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World Leaders Try to Avert Genocide in DRC Town of Bunia - 2003-05-14

Bodies lay in the streets of the eastern Congolese town of Bunia on Wednesday as fighting between tribal militias continued for an eighth day. World leaders are trying to put together an international peacekeeping force to avert possible genocide.

The battle for control of Bunia is continuing, with Lendu fighters using mortars, artillery and small arms to try and recapture the town, which they lost to the Hema-led Union of Congolese Patriots on Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled, desperate to escape the indiscriminate killings being carried out by the rival tribal militias.

Pope John Paul II and the U.N.'s chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, have warned that the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could be on the verge of genocide, as witnessed in neighboring Rwanda in 1994.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is trying to piece together a multi-national force to bring an end to the bloodshed.

There are currently 600 U.N. soldiers, a force kinown as MONUC, in Bunia. But they are hopelessly outnumbered by some 25,000 militiamen. And their mandate limits them to doing little more than handing out food.

France has agreed to send about 700 troops to Congo, if they are part of an international team with the mandate to use force.

Fabienne Hara, who is the Africa director at the International Crisis Group, an advocacy organization based in Brussels, has said many other countries need to send troops if the force is going to be effective.

"It has to be a brigade at least. It has to be at least 3,000 people. It could be a combination of the French forces plus other forces, MONUC forces or South African forces, or whoever is willing to go," Ms. Hara said.

The latest round of fighting erupted last week, when Ugandan forces, which had been occupying Bunia, pulled out.

Uganda and Rwanda have been supporting rival militias and rebel groups in eastern Congo since 1998. Under enormous international pressure, they have now withdrawn their forces - leaving chaos in their wake.

Mr. Annan has urged Uganda to use its influence to calm the situation.

But Ms. Hara said Uganda and Rwanda need to apply much greater pressure to force their Congolese allies to stop fighting. "I'd like to see serious pressure on Rwanda and Uganda. They have to be accountable. The mess in eastern Congo is largely their fault, largely their responsibility," she said. "UPC that's just taken over Bunia is Rwandan-backed. They claim they are not there but they are there. Uganda has just left but they have left a lot of allies and proxies and weapons behind them."

Congolese President Joseph Kabila is trying to arrange a meeting with the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents in Tanzania.

In recent months, the DRC has made giant strides toward ending its four-and-a-half-year war.

A transitional government of national unity is due to be installed in the capital Kinshasa later this month. But the current fighting is putting that peace process in serious jeopardy.