New evidence has emerged of the bloody violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sparking concerns over the potential for genocide.
Bunia is said to be traumatised by violence
The UN mission in DR Congo (Monuc) says it has now found the bodies of more than 280 people who were killed during recent clashes between rival militias in the regional capital, Bunia.
Fifty of the bodies were found yesterday, some were mutilated and may have been cannibalised, Monuc spokesman Hamadoun Toure told AP.
Civilians fleeing into Uganda to escape violence have reported widespread atrocities by ethnic militias.
Human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged the international community to halt the killings in Bunia, saying that the UN presence there was insufficient and that thousands of civilians were at risk.
News of the latest violence came as a small party of French military observers arrived in the north-east town of Bunia to investigate the possible deployment of a multinational force; they will also meet officials from Monuc.
British officials are considering contributing to the force, as United Nations officials in Bunia warn of the possibility of genocide if a large contingent of experienced peacekeepers is not brought in swiftly.
The BBC's Ishbel Matheson in Bunia says local people are traumatised by violence, with many leaving their homes to seek refuge at the UN compound.
The health clinic by the compound is crammed with people suffering from the most appalling injuries, she says.
One woman who refused to give money to militiamen was slashed repeatedly with machetes, and saw her children killed in front of her, our correspondent said.
Another man had a bandage round his neck after his throat had been slashed. Many say they want an international force to put an end to their suffering.
There have also been reports of cannibalism, and witnesses have reported seeing fighters in Bunia with human organs draped on their weapons, AP said.
The European Union said on Monday it was considering a UN request to send peacekeeping troops.
France has been asked to lead this force and provide a battalion with up to 1,000 troops. But it insists that other nations join the force and the deployment be for a limited period.
And militia leaders say they will treat any French troops who go to Bunia as enemies.
British officials say what is being talked about is a short-term operation to fill the gap until South African and Bangladeshi troops arrive in July or August to reinforce the existing UN contingent.
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Wednesday that Britain was considering how to aid the operation.
"We are seeing, given all our other engagements, what support we can give," he said.
UN force under pressure
There are about 700 Uruguayan soldiers in Bunia, but they have neither the mandate nor the numbers to stop the fighting or prevent atrocities against civilians.
The UN has been unable to halt clashes in the area
The UN troops have been pulled back into Bunia for their own protection after the killing of two soldiers some 70 km north of the town.
A truce was signed by the rival militias on Friday, and large scale fighting stopped on Sunday in Bunia.
The clashes erupted soon after the 9,000 strong Ugandan forces withdrew from Bunia about two weeks ago, as part of a wider peace deal.
Some 20,000 Congolese civilians have fled to Uganda since then, according to the UN refugee agency.
"We would all have been massacred on the way if it weren't for the large numbers of [withdrawing] Ugandan soldiers," one refugee told the BBC's Will Ross in western Uganda.
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 district around Bunia is rich with gold.
Neighbouring nations involved in the five-year DR Congo conflict - Uganda and Rwanda - armed both sides as proxy militias.
Some 50,000 people have died and some half a million people displaced from Ituri since 1999.