Peacekeepers kill 60 militiamen as UN pledges tougher stance in Congo

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The Independent Online

United Nations peacekeepers have killed up to 60 militiamen in a gun battle in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of an ambush in which19 soldiers from Bangladesh were killed and mutilated last week.

United Nations peacekeepers have killed up to 60 militiamen in a gun battle in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of an ambush in which19 soldiers from Bangladesh were killed and mutilated last week.

The clash between the UN forces and the Lendu fightersoutside Bunia on Tuesday was the deadliest operation in the organisation's six-year mission in Congo. The UN had sent in more than 200 Pakistani soldiers, backed by an attack helicopter and armoured vehicles. Two peacekeepers were wounded and have been airlifted to South Africa.

Militiamen from the Lendu Nationalist and Integrationist Front have been attacking villages of the rival Hema tribe for several years. A UN spokesman Eliane Nabaa said: "The group continues to loot, kill and rape these people, making life miserable. It's time to put an end to this militia." Humanitarian groups believe that since 1999, fighting in the violent, lawless north-eastern district of Ituri has killed more than 50,000 people and forced another 500,000 to flee their homes.

UN peacekeepers in the Congo have been criticised for years for being ineffective; in 2003 and 2004, they were defeated by militia groups that then went on to murder hundreds of civilians. The UN head of mission, William Lacy Swing, said this week's battles indicated a harder line from the organisation in its mission to bring peace and stability to the country. "Yes, we will be more active and more robust in carrying out the protection mandate," he told Reuters.

That mission has recently been undermined by a sex scandal, where women and girls from camps in Bunia accused peacekeepers of raping them or trading food for sex. A UN inquiry found that peacekeepers had abused girls as young as 13, and admitted that the abuse had destroyed the local people's trust in the UN mission. Now, the UN says that it is determined to continue fighting the militias and to dismantle their camps hidden deep inside the nearby mountains. Jean- Francois Collot d'Escuries, chief of staff for UN troops in Congo, told reporters: "Our forces will keep putting pressure on the ground until these militia are dismantled entirely."

The UN had sent peacekeepers to remote areas to provide food and shelter for people who had fled their homes, but the organisation has now said it will have to suspend humanitarian assistance to 54,000 people in the region as the area is becoming more violent.

Leaders of the Lendu community accused the UN of seeking revenge for the killing of the Bangladeshi peacekeepers. One community leader, Batsi Thewi, said at least three women and several children had been attacked. He added: "Yesterday our people were attacked by armoured cars and from the air. Bombs were dropped on civilian areas. Bodies have been burnt inside houses. Buildings have been crushed by armoured cars."

The UN's mission in Congo, made up of 16,000 personnel from 100 different countries, is its largest peacekeeping operation. The country has sufferedfive years of civil war that killed nearly four million people. Elections were scheduled for June but they have now been postponed until October because of the continuing violence.

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