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Refugees Return Home to Bunia, Congo - 2003-06-28

Thousands of refugees have been pouring back into the war-stricken town of Bunia in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after weeks of violence in and around the city. The return of the displaced people comes days after a French-led multinational force banned weapons in the town.

Returning laden with their meager possessions, many of them have found their homes looted and destroyed.

The return of the displaced residents to Bunia marks a small success for the French-led multinational force, which started its deployment here weeks ago, in order to stop civilians being caught in the crossfire of fighting between rival ethnic Hema and Lendu militia groups.

A recent escalation of violence has claimed almost 500 lives and adds to the total death toll of more than 50,000 in the last four years in the areas around Bunia.

Both Hema and Lendu militia have been backed by Uganda and Rwanda in their struggle to dominate the mineral-rich area of Ituri, of which Bunia is the principal town.

The return of civilians comes only three days after the multinational force enforced the ban on armed men in the town. The town had previously been controlled by the larger Hema militia, forcing many predominantly Lendu in the south of the town to flee.

Humanitarian agencies have not been able to get far out of Bunia, as the multinational force's mandate only covers the town itself. While Bunia has been secured, reports of massacres in the outlying areas of Ituri have been filtering through for weeks.

Meanwhile, an agreement has been signed in Beni, 200 kilometers south of Bunia, between the government of Congo and the country's largest rebel group, Rally for Congolese Democracy, or RCD Goma, to start withdrawing troops from the area, following weeks of fighting there.

The fighting between the government-backed militia and the Rwanda-backed RCD Goma had previously poisoned the atmosphere in the capital, Kinshasa, where negotiations to install a transitional government to end Congo's wider war have already stalled twice in the last six weeks over disagreements over the composition of the army.

Despite the recent lull in Congo's violence, many analysts fear not only continued violence outside Bunia beyond the reach of the multi-national force, but also a revival of violence between government and RCD Goma, should the talks in Kinshasa end in deadlock.