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UN Force Takes Over Security in Bunia, Congo, as Violence Continues - 2003-08-31

U.N. troops in Bunia, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have completed the final stage of the takeover from a French-led intervention force that was sent to the town in June to protect civilians from attacks by ethnic Hema and Lendu militia.

Bangladeshi U.N. troops took over the last checkpoint manned by French soldiers in Bunia, a day before the European force's mandate is set to end.

Anticipation is high as to whether this newly-mandated U.N. force will be able to tackle the conflict in the surrounding mineral-rich province of Ituri, which is comparable in size to Sierra Leone.

The U.N. force based in Ituri will be comprised principally of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Nepalese troops, although there are several hundred Uruguayan troops who have been in Bunia for several months.

Eventually numbering roughly 4,800 in total, the U.N. blue helmets will begin efforts to secure key towns in the countryside, where killings and raids have been taking place.

At present, 2,500 U.N. troops are based in the town, 1,200 of them from Bangladesh. They have been issued with a heavier mandate by the U.N. Security Council, which effectively gives them the right to open fire if necessary, in order to complete whatever mission they are undertaking.

The French-led force's mandate was to secure the town of Bunia and set up a platform from which a larger contingent of troops could be deployed.

An escalation in fighting in Bunia commenced in late April, after the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from the area.

Both the Rwandan army and factions within the Ugandan military have been backing ethnic Hema and Lendu militia since 1999 in their bid to dominate Ituri, which is rich in gold, diamonds, and coltan - a mineral used in the manufacture of mobile phones.

The conflict has claimed more than 50,000 lives since 1999 and is a blight on the new government of national reconciliation in Congo, which has only just ended a four-year civil war that claimed more than three million lives, according to many aid agencies in the country.

In the meantime, continuing violence takes place in the hills surrounding Bunia. The latest attack, in the town of Fataki, about 80 kilometers northeast of Bunia, left hundreds dead and forced thousands to flee into the bush or to other towns in the region, including Bunia.