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UN Investigating 2 Congo Massacres - 2003-07-28

A U.N. peacekeeping force is investigating reports of two massacres in the Ituri region of northeastern Congo over the weekend in which dozens of people were reportedly killed.

Hamadoun Toure is spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping troops, known as MONUC, which have been stationed in the town of Bunia since April.

Mr. Toure said the U.N. is looking into reports that dozens of people were massacred by militiamen from the Lendu ethnic group in two villages approximately 20 kilometers north of Bunia, Ituri region's major town.

But MONUC has yet to confirm the incident and assess the damage. "You see, we don't have observers there. But we are planning to send a team to investigate, verify. Whenever we have these kinds of reports, we send a team to investigate," Mr. Toure said.

The reported massacres would violate an agreement among five regional militia groups operating in Ituri region to observe the cease-fire signed last May. Mr. Toure said militia leaders also pledged to disarm and participate in arms verification exercises.

Last Friday, the humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders expressed concern about the high level of violence and insecurity in Bunia and the surrounding Ituri region, despite the presence of 2,100 international peacekeeping troops.

The group's report criticized U.N. peacekeepers for telling people that Bunia was safe when it, in fact, was not. But MONUC's Mr. Toure disagrees, saying the city has calmed down.

"Bunia is safe. Bunia proper is, let's say, calm, of course," Mr. Toure said.

The people of Bunia and the Ituri region have experienced horrendous suffering in recent months. Last week, the mutilated bodies of 22 civilians were discovered in Nizi, a village some 20 kilometers north Bunia. In May, more than 230 mutilated bodies were discovered in the city.

The war pits members of the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups against one another in their bid to control Bunia. The fighting is complicated by the presence of many rebel and militia groups, which have received assistance from the Congo government, Rwanda, and Uganda.