Priest appeals for safety of orphans trapped in Fataki, Ituri

A Roman Catholic priest has called for the protection of some 30 orphans trapped by fighting between ethnic militias in the village of Fataki, 80 km north of Bunia, the main town of the embattled Ituri District of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Missionary Service News Agency, MISNA, reported.

"When Lendu militias attacked the orphanage, two nuns and four nurses fled with the 31 children," Father Protect Dhena, was quoted as saying. "They are now barricaded in the Sisters of Carmel convent, where they have nothing left to eat. The children are very small: the oldest is only three."

In his appeal on Friday, Dhena also said that the children, accompanied by nuns, had taken refuge in a building in Fataki following the most recent fighting there that erupted on 2 August. Witnesses said that armed men, who appeared drugged or drunken, pillaged then destroyed the local orphanage, hospital, market, church and convent.

Dhena said that he and three other priests were hiding in the Fataki seminary.

Fataki, primarily inhabited by the Hema and Gegere people, was the scene of death for some 80 civilians on or about 20 July. MISNA has attributed the attacks to Lendu militias. Independent verification, however, was not possible, owing to lack of access.

Due to prevailing insecurity, the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, has been unable to deploy outside Bunia, while the EU-led mission sent to reinforce MONUC is not mandated to operate beyond the confines of the town. However, the UN Security Council recently adopted a resolution giving MONUC a stronger mandate and increasing its authorised strength from 8,700 to 10,800 troops. The council also extended the mission's mandate for another year, until 30 July 2004.

Strife in natural resource-rich Ituri between Hema and Lendu militias prompted between 200,000 and 350,000 people to flee when fighting intensified in May, humanitarian sources reported. None of the ethnic-based militias fighting for control of Ituri is signatory to the national power-sharing accord that led to the installation on 30 June of a transitional government led by President Joseph Kabila.