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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June, 2003, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
French impose DR Congo gun ban
French troops near Bunia
The French mandate is largely restricted to Bunia
French forces say a deadline for armed men to leave the town of Bunia in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo has expired and that from now on anyone found carrying weapons will have them confiscated.

"We're on the right track," said French military spokesman Colonel Gérard Dubois, announcing that talks with the gunmen's leadership had ended successfully.

The BBC's Andrew Harding, who is in Bunia, says the withdrawal of the lawless militiamen is a significant breakthrough for the French.

The armed Hema ethnic group which seized control of Bunia a month ago had been demanding the right to keep more than 700 soldiers inside town as bodyguards.

But the French have told them they can keep just 30 men inside a compound.

About 500 civilians have died in the past two months in fighting in Bunia between the Hema and rival Lendu fighters.

Disarm

The remainder of their forces, including many child soldiers, are set to leave on Wednesday under a UN escort.

From now on, French troops plan to disarm anyone found carrying weapons in and around Bunia - an exact zone has been mapped out.

This past week the French, who arrived two weeks ago with tanks and a special mandate to protect civilians, have already shown they are ready to shoot first if they feel under threat.

However none of this can guarantee stability here - there are too many different militia groups in the region for that, and it is more than likely that a lot of guns have simply been hidden in town, our correspondent says.

Difference

The French-led peacekeepers extended the weapons deadline by 24 hours on Tuesday after most of the gunmen in the town appeared to have left.

It was agreed after talks with fighters from the main local Hema force - the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).

UPC leader Thomas Lubanga said all his fighters apart from his bodyguards had withdrawn - reportedly to camps outside Bunia.

The French-led force extended its grip on the Bunia area on Wednesday, moving into the village of Dele - formerly a Lendu stronghold - seven kilometres (four miles) from the town.

"It is a strong signal for all the militias that the force holds the strategic points around Bunia," Major Xavier Pons, deputy spokesman for the peacekeepers, told the Reuters news agency in the village.

Hema fighter near Bunia

Hundreds of Congolese fighters marched out of Bunia this week in line with the deadline to end all "visible armed presence" in the town.

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

Troubled region

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

The French-led force began deploying in Bunia 6 June, and will eventually number up to 1,500 soldiers.

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 UPC control following the Ugandan pull-out in early May.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Andrew Harding
"A ragtag army of Congolese militia soldiers"



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