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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 21:05 GMT 22:05 UK
Truce as Congo town empties
The UN compound in Bunia
Many people have fled to the UN compound and UN-controlled airport
Officials from rival ethnic militias have signed a truce to end fierce fighting in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo.

Although the proposed ceasefire starts at midnight Friday local time, United Nations officials reported that fighting appeared to have stopped already inside the town of Bunia.

The UN Security Council has pledged its support for a proposal to deploy an emergency multi-national force to try to halt the violence.

Fighting broke out for control of Bunia following the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from the area agreed as part of a wider peace deal for the DR Congo.

Scores of people have been killed.

According to Oxfam, many of the town's 350,000 inhabitants have fled leaving the centre and main market place eerily empty.

More than 10,000 residents gathered on Friday at the UN compound in Bunia and the nearby airport, seeking the protection of 700 mainly Uruguayan troops stationed there.

Peace moves

After 24 hours of talks, the five main militia groups on Friday signed the ceasefire brokered in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam by DR Congo President Joseph Kabila.

This is an escalating and serious situation to which greater international attention is needed
Richard Grenall
US spokesman at the UN
Under the agreement, the warring factions are to demilitarise Bunia and confine their fighters to temporary quarters.

The accord also warns foreign governments against arming groups involved in the conflict.

"The importance is not the people on paper, what will be important is the implementation of what was signed," Mr Kabila told reporters in Dar es Salaam.

"After the demobilisation and disarmament, we will wait for an international intervention force to make sure that no more massacres take place. Those are immediate plans."

The UN Security Council in New York has begun considering a proposal by Secretary General Kofi Annan to assemble an international force.

"This is an escalating and serious situation to which greater international attention is needed," said Richard Grenall, spokesman for the US ambassador to the UN.

France has indicated that it would contribute to a force - but it wants to be part of a wider international force with a clear mandate.

Diplomats say they may be in a position to adopt a resolution authorising the force's deployment as early as next week.

Genocide claim

The chaos has made it impossible to determine the overall death toll.

A United Nations official said two members of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bunia have been missing for three days and are feared dead.

On Friday the Red Cross in Geneva announced that two of its local volunteers have been killed.


People fleeing from the fighting between two rival ethnic militias said they saw mutilated bodies including babies in the streets.

UN officials and others have warned of possible genocide in Bunia and elsewhere in the Ituri province.

Hemas, traditionally cattle-raisers, and Lendus, predominantly farmers, have been in conflict for centuries for land and other resources in the area.

The rivalry has become more bloody because Ituri province around Bunia is rich with gold, and neighbouring nations that became involved in wars in the DR Congo in the 1990s - Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia - had armed both sides as proxy militias.

President Joseph Kabila on Focus on Africa
"I expect a total cessation of hostilities"

Bunia eye-witness Caroline Pare on Focus on Africa
"..people are desperate to get to the airport, get on a plane and get out of here"

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