The Uganda People's Defence Forces and the Kinshasa government have dismissed claims by the leader of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), Thomas Lubanga, that they massacred residents of Bunia in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as the Ugandan military and allied Lendu militias drove out the UPC from the city on Thursday.
"Of course these allegations are false - he [Lubanga] is the one who attacked us," Maj Shaban Bantariza, the Ugandan military spokesman, told IRIN on Friday from Kampala. "There were no massacres. There is no trouble at present in Bunia. You can walk around town freely."
As for the Lendu militias, Bantariza said the Ugandan military had stopped them from pillaging.
Lubanga told IRIN on Friday that after his troops had withdrawn from Bunia, Ugandan soldiers, among whose ranks he alleged were members of the Forces armees congolaises (FAC), "went on to massacre the population and pillage the town" as Ugandan tank crews who had been mobilised for the attack sat and watched.
Lubanga said the killings targeted UPC collaborators and people of the Hema community, to which he belongs. "They pillaged basically all of the merchants of our ethnic group who were sustaining the bulk of economic activity in the city," he said.
Lubanga, whose fighters were routed after several hours of intense combat, said he was camped eight kilometres outside Bunia, from where he planned "to continue to fight the foreign occupation".
No independent figures regarding numbers of killed and wounded are yet available. However, UPC allies, the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma), reported on Friday a preliminary toll of the fighting in Bunia as 500 deaths, most of whom were of civilians.
Lubanga accused the Ugandan military of covering-up the killings. "This morning, Ugandan troops forced the population to gather all corpses and load them on trucks which brought them to the airport. This was done to erase all evidence [of killings]," he said.
Bantariza, however, dismissed these accusations. "There are no dead in town, because there was no resistance," he said. "The UPDF suffered only one fatality while the UPC was shelling our positions outside of Bunia."
Lubanga also denounced the reported arrival of several large cargo aircraft bringing additional Ugandan troops.
For its part, the RCD-Goma concurred with Lubanga's allegations that Kinshasa had sent forces to Bunia.
"Beginning at 04:20 GMT, the Ugandan army deployed its arsenal of heavy artillery and tanks and other armoured vehicles mounted with heavy armaments from the National Airport of Bunia and began to pillage the city," Jean-Pierre Lola Kisanga, an RCD-Goma spokesman, said in a communique issued on Friday.
At the same time, he added, along the axis of Bogoro, south of Bunia, a government army regiment that included elements of the Armee du peuple congolais (the army of Mbusa Nyamwisi’s RCD-Kisangani/Mouvement de liberation) and ethnic Ngiti-Lendu fighters launched attacks on UPC positions 17 km south of Bunia. Kisanga said several public and private buildings were also destroyed.
Because of this fighting in Bunia, RCD-Goma withdrew from peace talks that were nearing conclusion on Thursday in Pretoria, South Africa. However, they returned later in the evening and added their signature to two agreements - one on a transitional constitution, the other on the formation of a unified national army - that had been signed by all other parties to the inter-Congolese dialogue.
Meanwhile, the Kinshasa government said its army was not even present in Bunia.
"There are no government troops in Ituri or Bunia," Luaba Ntumba, the minister for human rights, told IRIN on Friday.
He recalled that the Luanda agreement of 6 September 2002 signed by presidents Joseph Kabila of the DRC and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda accorded responsibility for security in Bunia to the Ugandan military.
"It is for this reason that Uganda maintained two battalions there," he said. "However, according to the most recent agreement reached on 11 February in Dar es Salaam, Ugandan forces must leave the city by the end of March, to be replaced by the national police."
Bantariza expressed a similar point of view. "We are doing what we can to see the IPC [Ituri Pacification Commission] is put in place as per the Luanda accord signed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and DRC President Joseph Kabila, so that we can withdraw from the Congo," he said.
"If stability and peace can be brought to this region, we can then begin the nationwide peace process," Ntumba added.
The UPC, however, feels that this process cannot take place for so long as it is not taken into account. "They want to unify all of the armed factions without us, but what will become of the 12,000 armed men under our control?" Lubanga said.
He was reacting to the agreement reached on Thursday by all parties to the inter-Congolese dialogue on the transitional constitution and unified national army. UPC was not a party to these talks, nor was it a signatory of the 17 December 2002 peace accord reached in Pretoria.