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France Mulls Sending UN Forces to War-Torn Congolese City - 2003-05-20

A French military team is assessing the possibility of deploying a major U.N. force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Local people in the town of Bunia are eager for foreign intervention to bring an end to ethnic fighting.

The nine French army and navy officers will spend two nights in Bunia. During this time, they will assess what kind of a force would be needed to quell the violence in the region.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has asked about 20 countries to contribute troops to an international force to stem the conflict in Bunia, which has caused a humanitarian disaster involving thousands of refugees.

The French team is studying the security situation and identifying the possible location of a military headquarters. It is also looking at the capacity of the local airport and how troops would be deployed.

Red Cross workers have counted more than 230 bodies of people killed since the latest round of fighting broke out two weeks ago. The death toll is expected to rise as humanitarian agencies gain access to other parts of the town.

Hema and Lendu militias started battling for control of Bunia when occupying Ugandan forces pulled out earlier this month. The Hema-Lendu conflict is an ages-old competition over land and resources.

But it has become particularly deadly in recent years as the Ugandan, Rwandan, and Congolese governments have backed and armed rival militia groups to fight on their behalf. The province is rich in timber and valuable minerals, including gold.

Fighting has subsided since a truce was signed in Tanzania on Friday, but experts say it will start again unless there is an effective international force in place.

The United Nations has 600 troops in Bunia, but they have been able to do little more than distribute food. The bodies of two U.N. soldiers who had been brutally killed were found Monday.

Secretary General Annan has asked France to lead the new international force, and provide a battalion of up to 1,000 troops. The European Union is also likely to join the peacekeeping team.

Thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the Bunia area in recent weeks, overwhelming some villages across the border in Uganda. Local people are eager to see the deployment of U.N. troops, hoping that will enable the refugees to return home.

But two militia factions have voiced their opposition to foreign forces being deployed in Bunia.