Some 100 civilians of the Hema people are reported to have been deported to "labour camps" organised by Lendu militias near Fataki, about 80 km north of Bunia, in the troubled Ituri District of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Missionary Service News Agency (MISNA) reported on Tuesday.
It reported that the prisoners were abducted during fighting that took place between the end of July and the beginning of August, during which an estimated 80 civilians were killed on or about 20 July.
"Women and young people are being held in slavery," one witness told MISNA.
Others talked of the existence of "labour camps" in an area between 10 and 20 km from Fataki, where prisoners are forced to do agricultural work at gunpoint.
Meanwhile, MISNA reported the death of Father Jean-Faustin Mandro Kpanga, who had been missing since the beginning of August. It said Lendu fighters, who appeared drugged or drunken, had beaten Kpanga to death in the village of Aidha, about 15 km outside Fataki. Witnesses told MISNA that it was not yet possible to recover Kpanga's body due to prevailing insecurity in the region.
For this same reason, 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 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.
Since late 1998, economically driven inter-ethnic strife in natural resource-rich Ituri has resulted in the deaths of at least 50,000 people and the displacement of at least 500,000.
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 new government led by President Joseph Kabila. However, under a memorandum of understanding signed last week in Kinshasa, Ituri militias have agreed to work together with the newly-inaugurated two-year transitional government in restoring state authority across the region.