Disarmament programme launched in Ituri

A programme involving the disarmament of some 15,000 ex-combatants in Ituri District, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and their reintegration into civilian life was officially launched on Wednesday in Bunia, the main town in the area.

"This is a pilot project, the first national disarmament programme uniquely for [the] Congolese," said Rachel Eklou, the spokeswoman for the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known by its French acronym, MONUC.

The programme, which was approved by the government in January, will be carried out at five transit sites at Mahagi, Kpwandroma, Kasenyi, Iga Barriere/Nizi and Aveba. The camps are to open on 13 September.

Leaders of the various armed groups in the district located in the northeast of the DRC are being asked to provide lists of combatants who will then go to the transit sites for disarmament. The combatants are to spend several days on the sites.

More than a quarter of the combatants in Ituri are children.

All combatants may not accept the programme, said Ituri Commissioner Petronille Vaweka who launched the programme. "I was in six camps where combatants are already being cantoned," she said "Most accept disarmament but some are resisting because of the presence of strangers."

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is setting up the transit sites with tents, water supply and sanitation. It is also taking care of communication and other logistics. MONUC and the national army will be jointly in charge of disarmament.

The programme will cost US $10.5 million. Donors include Belgium, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Spain, as well as UNDP and other international organisations.

UNDP says it will create a database of ex-combatants. It will identify them using iris-recognising technology, the first time such a tool has been used to identify people in a disarmament operation in Africa.

The disarmament programme follows the 14 May 2004 "Act of Engagement" in which the leaders of seven armed groups in Ituri agreed to end hostilities. Between 1999 and 2003, an estimated 55,000 people died in the mineral rich district during the hostilities.