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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 June, 2003, 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK
Clashes mar DR Congo pull-out
French patrol in Bunia
The peacekeepers say they will disarm remaining gunmen
French peacekeepers have exchanged gunfire with ethnic militia fighters in the war-torn town of Bunia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The BBC's Andrew Harding in Bunia says the French troops rushed in to crush a suspected incursion by ethnic Lendu fighters.

The clash came as a deadline for the gunmen to disarm was extended for another 24 hours until midday on Wednesday.

The spokesman for the French troops, Colonel Gerard Dubois, told reporters the ultimatum had been pushed back so that certain details could be finalised.

Very few gunmen were visible in Bunia on Tuesday, although some of armed men loyal to rebel leader Thomas Lubanga were deployed in one southern district in response to an alleged incursion by rival fighters.

Protecting leaders

Our correspondent says that most of the ethnic Hema fighters in control of Bunia have complied, but a small number have remained to protect the leadership.

About 500 civilians have died in the past two months in fighting between the rival factions in the town.

A French-led international peacekeeping force had given all armed groups until 1100 local time (0900 GMT) on Tuesday to pull out of the town or be forcibly disarmed.

We need the multi-national force to protect us, so we can go back to our homes, our work, our fields
Ngule Lombe-Yeye
Bunia resident

Many families are talking about returning to their homes, but are not sure if the few hundred peacekeeping troops can ensure their security.

There are also reports that residents in at least one neighbourhood have fled, fearing revenge attacks from a rival militia.

Shoot to kill

Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the ethnic Hema Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) told Reuters news agency: "All our soldiers have left the town, apart from our bodyguards."

They have gone to camps outside the town at an unspecified location.

Fruit seller in Bunia

"Since yesterday we've seen fighters starting to leave," said one Bunia resident, Ngule Lombe-Yeye, 40.

"We need the multi-national force to protect us, so we can go back to our homes, our work, our fields," he said.

The international force, which currently numbers about 700 troops, has the authority to shoot to kill.

On 16 June, a French patrol killed two militiamen after coming under fire in Bunia.

The force began deploying in the town on 6 June, and will eventually number up to 1,500 soldiers.

It is supposed to reinforce about 750 UN troops who have been in Bunia since April.

Revenge fears

Ethnic violence flared in the troubled north-eastern region of the DR Congo in April, after Uganda began withdrawing troops it had stationed there.

Bunia, the capital of the gold-rich Ituri province, came under the administration of the UPC following the Ugandan pull-out in early May.

UPC gunmen are drawn from the Hema ethnic group, which has been fighting the rival Lendu militia.

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