Baptism of fire for French peacekeepers

International intervention force arrives to find terrified townspeople crowding into the UN compound
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The battle erupted at dawn. First the rattle of gunfire, then a terrifying cacophony of shellfire, missiles and machine-gun bursts as Bunia's terrified residents cowered from the second major confrontation in a month.

Yesterday was a baptism of fire for the first 100 French soldiers to arrive in this blood-soaked corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are the first element of a 1,400-strong force, including some Britons, which is supposed to enforce peace in a region where fighting between tribal militias has raised fears of genocide.

One day after the French-led intervention force started to arrive at Bunia airport, Lendu militiamen were trying to recapture the town, four miles to the east, in a terrifying show of force. Battlewagons of the rival Hema tribe roared through the deserted streets, discharging a deafening rear-mounted gun.

Entire neighbourhoods of Bunia emptied as thousands of frightened townspeople piled into the overcrowded UN compound, where a small force of mainly African and South American peacekeepers have vainly tried to stem the violence over recent weeks. Other inhabitants fled into the countryside.

For three hours I sheltered with other journalists inside our rooms in a Catholic mission as rounds whistled dangerously close by. Then three UN vehicles rushed in to pick us up and take us amid the gunfire to the UN compound 100 yards away, passing young Hema boys crouching in the verge. Older fighters, apparently unconcerned, were leaning against the wall.

Uruguayan armoured personnel carriers trained mounted machine guns down Bunia's empty main street, but they were under orders not to open fire. Inside the UN compound, we squeezed beside six Uruguayan soldiers behind a wall, and waited for the battle to subside.

By 1pm yesterday the Hema had driven the Lendu out of the town centre, but nobody expected the pause to be anything but brief. Earlier the UN commander, Colonel Daniel Vollot, drove to the front lines to persuade the warring parties to stop, but said: "They didn't want to talk. They wanted to make war."

As the shooting stopped, civilian casualties were trickling into the hospital, where Augustin Katho sat limply on the floor. He thought he was safe inside the UN compound, he said. Then a stray round pierced the flimsy perimeter fence and ripped through his arm. "I am innocent in this business. But still people are killing on both sides," he said.

A hospital worker, who requested anonymity, said: "We thought that the international force would end the fighting. Yesterday we were shouting 'liberation'. Then this morning" - his voice trailed off - "it's as if they were mocking them." A few streets away, a burst of gunfire rang out.

Back at the UN compound, refugees were cooking pots of beans and yellow maize meal for lunch. Anderson Baguma, a 28-year-old teacher, had sprinted through the streets to reach safety. "I am a Hema," he said. "If the Lendu had caught us, we would have paid a high price. When they come, they kill." Another man pointed to a mark on the Uruguayan personnel carrier, where a bullet had ricocheted off its armour.

A soldier of the Hema's UPC militia limped down the dirt road behind the compound. "My own team accidentally hit me with a rocket," he said. "But it's not too bad. For now we control the situation here, though not totally." A young boy trailing behind, perhaps 15 years old, carried an AK-47 on his back and a full plastic bag in his hand, a sign of the looting that followed previous battles. French soldiers later threatened to open fire on a Hema battlewagon that tried to pass near the UN compound. After a tense stand-off, the battlewagon turned back.

By late afternoon the Lendu had retreated to Dele, three miles south of Bunia. Fighting had also broken out in nearby Katoto and Lonya villages. Last night aid workers said they feared a fresh Lendu offensive on Bunia. "As a first step the French must demilitarise the town. Otherwise the killing, pillaging and rapes will continue," said Nigel Pearson, a British medical co-ordinator with the Swiss charity Medair.

When we returned to the mission to gather our bags for a night on the grass outside the UN building, our cook told a photographer: "The UN cars came for you. But they left us behind."