Tens of thousands flee ethnic fighting in Congo

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Fleeing civilians jammed roads out of the eastern Congolese city of Bunia yesterday as tens of thousands tried to escape the rival ethnic militias battling for control.

President Joseph Kabila and the factions' leaders opened urgent talks at the prompting of the United Nations, which has warned of a the danger of genocide in Congo's Ituri province, of which Bunia is the capital. The withdrawal of foreign African troops from the province nine days ago opened the way for a bloody power struggle between the rival Lendu and Hema peoples. More than 100 have been confirmed dead, including scores killed at a parish church where they had sought refuge.

Bunia's people took advantage of the lull in fighting as militia leaders arrived at the talks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to flee homes where many had been trapped for a week. Patricia Tome, a UN spokeswoman, said: "It's a rare quiet day and I have been out on the streets, where I saw 2,000 people walking on the road to the airport." Up to 5,000 residents gathered around the UN compound in Bunia, hoping for protection from a 725-strong detachment of Uruguayan troops in a UN observation force. Another 6,000 citizens crowded into and around the city's UN-controlled airport.

Aid workers flying over Bunia on Wednesday saw "a massive column of people" streaming towards Beni, 100 miles to the south-west. Gemma Swart, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, said: "They estimated that between 30,000 and 60,000 people are on that road alone."

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, has appealed for troop contributions for an international force. Britain and France say they are considering specific requests.

In Dar es Salaam, Mulegwa Zihindula, a spokesman for President Kabila, said: "The talks are at an early stage, but there is optimism. Immediately after this we would like to see a cessation of hostilities."