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UN Force Begins Operations in Bunia - 2003-08-16

U.N. troops have begun taking over operations from a French-led European force in Bunia, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The French moved in to prevent further massacres of townspeople by ethnic militias.

Bangladeshi forces under the U.N. flag marched in Saturday to relieve French troops manning a checkpoint on the far west of the town.

The exchange of flags marks the beginning of the withdrawal of the French-led European force, which has been in Bunia since June.

The French were sent in to check a wave of killings that began in April, perpetrated by ethnic Hema and Lendu militias.

The conflict in Bunia and the surrounding province of Ituri, rich in gold, diamonds and coltan - a mineral used for the manufacture of mobile telephones - has cost more than 50,000 lives since 1998. It is seen as a war within Congo's wider civil war, which has claimed more than three million lives.

Both Hema and Lendu militias have been backed by various factions of the Ugandan and Rwandan armed forces, in what analysts believe were attempts to dominate the mineral-rich province.

The continuing violence in the hills surrounding Bunia puts a severe strain on the new Congolese government of national reconciliation, which hopes to end four years of war. It is also a challenge for U.N. forces, who will have to move out of the town and into Ituri, an area roughly the size of Sierra Leone.

The U.N. force, which will be comprised principally of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Nepali troops, will number 3,800 in total. The European force's mandate was only to protect the town. The new U.N. force will have to spread its limited force to bring order to the entire region. Meanwhile, Hema and Lendu militia leaders have convened in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, under the auspices of the United Nations, to discuss disarmament and peaceful withdrawal of forces.

With other ex-rebel movements backed by Uganda and Rwanda already a part of the new power sharing government, many of the Hema and Lendu militia leaders, also backed by Uganda and Rwanda, are no doubt vying to be integrated somehow into the overall national political framework.

But it is unclear how successful the militia leaders will be in reining in undisciplined militiamen in the hills of Ituri, and whether there is the political will from their backers to do so.