Hundreds flee fighting in Ituri District

Hundreds of civilians have been displaced by fighting between United Nations-supported government troops and militiamen in the northeastern province of Orientale in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bunia, Ituri District.

Three hundred displaced persons fled fighting in the town of Tcheyi and arrived in Aveba village, 12 km south, on Monday, Modiba Traore said. "That adds to the 4,000 other displaced who have been in Aveba since the end of January," he added.

At this point, no urgent humanitarian interventions were needed, he said, but the aid community was ready to respond.

During a three-week period, between 8,000 and 10,000 people fled Tcheyi to Aveba following warnings by Gen Bob Ngoy, commander of a government operation in the northeast, that an attack by his forces to disarm the militiamen was imminent.

A government army battalion - backed by Pakistani, Bangladeshi and South African UN troops and two combat helicopters - attacked the militia early on Monday in Tcheyi from three directions: north of Tcheyi around Rusoke and Talolo, and from two axes south of Bunia in the direction of Boga.

UN troops encountered heavy artillery and mortar fire. The militia had been identified as former fighters of the Fronts des Résistances Patriotiques en Ituri who had joined a new militia called the Mouvement pour la Révolution au Congo.

The spokeswoman in Ituri District for the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), Jennifer Bakody, said nine government soldiers had been seriously wounded, one of which was in a critical condition. They had been transferred to the MONUC clinic in Bunia, about 75 km north of Tcheyi, she said. The total number of militia casualties is unknown.

Some 16,000 former fighters have willingly handed over their weapons as part of a disarmament and community reintegration process in the DRC and are now soldiers in the regular army or living in their home communities as civilians. As many as 2,000 militiamen refused to join the programme, which ended in June 2005.

The government has deployed six army brigades to Ituri and ordered them to disarm the recalcitrant militiamen. A brigade consists of between 1,500 and 3,200 soldiers.