A French-led European Union force ended its mandate in Congo's northeastern town of Bunia, handing over control to a newly mandated U.N. force to be made up of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Nepalese troops. The troops are expected to be deployed in the surrounding province of Ituri in two weeks.
The end of the French-led European force's mandate was marked by a ceremony of the lowering of French and EU flags at the central military headquarters in Bunia town.
French forces began their deployment of more than 1,200 troops on the ground in June, in order to secure the town of Bunia where rival ethnic militias had been targeting each other and innocent civilians.
More than 500 people were killed in Bunia in the latest bout of fighting that started in May, after the Ugandan military withdrawal from the mineral rich province of Ituri. French forces were able to enforce a no-weapons rule and disarm the main ethnic Hema group, the UPC.
About 50,000 lives have been lost in Ituri's conflict, and half a million people have been forced to flee their homes since 1999. The conflict pitted Hema and Lendu militias against each other, with both sides manipulated by the Rwandan army and factions of the Ugandan military as they battled for control of Ituri's gold, diamond and coltan reserves. Ituri is also said to be rich in oil.
The French-led force had a mandate to protect the town and its immediate surroundings only. But the U.N. troops have been mandated to deploy into Ituri, a province roughly the size of Sierra Leone, where continuing fighting and attacks against civilians continue, most recently by Lendus from the north against Hema dominated towns north of Bunia.
U.N. force commander General Mountaga Diallo confirmed the U.N. forces will probably begin their deployment after two weeks.
In the meantime, more than 2,000 troops of an expected force of nearly 5,000 U.N. soldiers are on the ground. Air support will be given by a Bangldeshi air force contingent, as well as Indian-staffed attack helicopters.
The continuing fighting in Ituri is a stain on the new government of national reconciliation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has just ended more than four years of war that had claimed three million lives.