Fighting broke out again on Tuesday afternoon in Bunia, the principal town of Ituri region in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), following its capture on Monday by the ethnic Hema rebel Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), and an allied rebel group, Patricia Tome, spokeswoman for the UN Mission to the DRC, MONUC, told IRIN.
"As we speak, they're using artillery, mortars. You can hear the exchanges of gunfire," Tome said from the UN base in Bunia. Tome said it was unclear whether ethnic Lendu fighters chased from the town had launched a counterattack, or whether fighting had broken out between the UPC, led by Thomas Lubanga, and the second Hema group known as PUSIC, which is led by Kawa Mandro Panga.
Tome said fighting was taking place along two axes close to MONUC positions in the north and the south of the town.
"The town is practically empty. The population has sought refuge where MONUC is. There is no water or electricity in the town which has been looted over and over again," she said.
On Tuesday at the UN headquarters in New York, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, warned that the ethnic conflict could constitute genocide. "Our evaluation, from what we know, it could be a genocide," she told news agencies.
France indicated that it was prepared to send troops to calm the situation, as long as there was a clear Security Council mandate and that other governments joined in. "France is ready to contribute to the stabilisation of Ituri and right now we are studying ways of taking part in an international force," French foreign ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau told the government Agence France Presse (AFP).
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that he had been in touch with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa who was talking to other leaders in the region about how to respond to the crisis.
Annan said he had also asked the Ugandan government to use its influence "to ensure that the militia and the people in the region restrain themselves".
The upsurge in fighting follows the withdrawal of about 6,000 Ugandan troops which had been occupying Bunia.