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Ethnic Violence Claims More Lives in Congo's Ituri Province - 2003-06-02

As an international force prepares to land in the Democratic Republic of Congo in an attempt to end weeks of violence in the northeastern province of Ituri, there are reports of more fighting in the province.

Government and U.N. officials in Kinshasa say they are receiving reports of more fighting between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in Ituri province.

According to a Hema militia spokesman, around 350 Hemas, most of them civilians, were massacred Saturday in Tchomia, a small town near the Ugandan border. The Hema spokesman blamed the massacre on Lendu militia fighters, which he said were backed by Congolese government troops. The U.N. mission in Congo has so far been unable to confirm the death count.

Violence has been plaguing the Ituri region since the beginning of May, after the Ugandan government withdrew its troops from the area.

The Hema and Lendu militias have been used as proxy forces by both Rwanda and Uganda since the two countries sent troops into Congo in 1998. Both countries said they were sending the troops to pursue extremist rebels who were carrying out attacks in their countries, but the troops were soon involved a struggle to dominate the mineral-rich area.

News of the latest violence comes as a U.N.-backed multi-national force, led by France, is heading to Ituri province this week in an attempt to help stop the recent upsurge in fighting.

Government officials in Kinshasa have rejected accusations that they have lent support to Lendu militias. They say that the violence shows that an international force is required immediately.

But some analysts note that it is in the government's interest to have a foothold in the Ituri area not least for its abundance in gold, diamonds and coltan, a mineral used in the production of mobile phones.