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UN Evacuates Last Greek Cypriots From Ituri Province in Northeastern Congo - 2003-05-23

The United Nations has evacuated the last remaining members of one of East Africa's oldest expatriate communities from Ituri province in war-torn northeastern Congo.

The Cypriot consulate in Kampala, Uganda says the United Nations evacuated some 70 Greek Cypriots and their Congolese family members several days ago from Ituri's provincial capital, Bunia. They were taken to Entebbe in Uganda.

The Greek Cypriots are long-time residents of Ituri province, which has seen months of brutal fighting between militias linked to rival Hema and Lendu ethic groups.

The Cypriot consulate believes all Greek Cypriots have now left the province.

Some have already left Africa. But others are staying in Uganda, vowing to go back to Ituri as soon as they can.

A handful of Cypriot farmers first settled in the region at the end of the 19th century. By the 1940s and 50s, the Greek Cypriot community in Congo-Kinshasa numbered nearly 4,000. But as the country descended into poverty and warfare under the late President Mobutu Sese Seko, many Cypriots left.

Just several hundred remained in Congo when Africa's biggest war erupted in 1998. At the Cypriot embassy in Kampala, Vice Consul Elizabeth Roussos says during past conflicts in Ituri, there had always been a group of Greek Cypriots who steadfastly refused to leave their homes. She says, this time, no one wanted to stay behind.

"What they actually say, most of them, especially another older man, he says what he saw this time was very, very different from all previous times," she explained. "He said it was just unbearable, things like the heart and liver being eaten and things like that."

Since Wednesday, U.N. troops and aid workers have uncovered the bodies of more than 300 people in Ituri's capital, Bunia. Many of the bodies, including women and children, were missing their hearts, livers and lungs, fueling fears that Hema and Lendu militias are engaging in cannibalism.

Earlier this year, human rights groups and U.N. investigators also accused tribal fighters and members of one Ugandan-backed rebel group in Ituri of slaughtering and eating forest-dwelling people known as Pygmies.

For months, the Hema and the Lendu have been fighting each other for control of the region's vast mineral deposits, tropical forests and fertile land. The Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese governments are accused of using the traditional rival tribes as proxies in Congo's nearly five-year-long civil war.

The fighting in Ituri province has left thousands dead and thousands more homeless.