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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
DR Congo militias disarm ahead of polls
By Karen Allen
BBC News, DR Congo

With the first free elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo due on Sunday, UN peacekeepers have been disarming the militias responsible for continuing insecurity in the east of the country, despite a peace deal more than three years ago.

Racks of guns being burnt
The UN's aim is to permanently remove weapons from circulation
So far in the eastern part of the DR Congo, 20,000 rebels have handed their weapons in.

But it is impossible to judge exactly how many more remain.

This is a country with porous borders and with the cost of an AK-47 just $10, weapons are easy to get hold of.

Kalashnikovs, machine guns and rifles are stacked in huge containers at a UN compound in Goma, where the focus of the operation is to disarm foreign militia.

After the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the Hutu FDLR fled across the border installing themselves in the dense forest of north Kivu.

Ready to return

Now a major operation to coax them out of hiding is under way - part of a repatriation programme brokered with the Rwandan government.

I know there are now good people in my country so I am no longer frightened to go back
Marche, former FDLR rebel
Marche, at 38, is a former FDLR rebel preparing to go home.

After nine years in the forest he travels light. All he has to his name is a packet of biscuits and bundle of cloth containing his clothes.

Ultimately it was his failing health that convinced him to turn his weapon in.

"I'm ready to go home. I'm sick and in the bush you can't get medicine. I know there are now good people in my country so I am no longer frightened to go back."

Gold deposits

Similar operations are being mounted further north in the province of Ituri, where a confusing array of Congolese rebel groups continue to clash with the army.

Weapons laid out after being handed in
Hundreds of thousands of arms have so far been handed in
This is not about political ideology, but a share of the region's vast mineral wealth.

Ituri has some of the country's richest deposits of gold, a factor that has inflamed tensions in the region.

At a transit camp near the town of Bunia, hundreds of young men, most of them teenage boys, are being "processed" back into the community.

With them are their dependants. Many of them have young wives and children.

In return for turning their backs on the militia, they are given food, medicine and around $400 to start up a business and get back on their feet.

The elections are coming - they understand all bets are off
William Swing, Monuc
But critics say the process has become painfully slow and open to abuse.

Yet William Swing, who heads up Monuc, the UN's peacekeeping force in the DR Congo, says the rebels have every incentive to disarm now:

"The elections are coming - they understand all bets are off. This is an opportunity to go into civilian life. Some, perhaps, will be accepted into the Congolese army."

An eleventh-hour deal with the main militia groups in Ituri, brokered by the UN just days before polling day, could help accelerate the disarmament process.

But elections bring with them huge expectations, and unless the government is quick to deliver and show some tangible improvements to people's lives, there is a danger many could re-arm.

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