Any attempted disarmament of warring factions in the north-eastern Congo town of Bunia - where 1,400 French, British and other UN troops are due to deploy this week - will be violently resisted, the main militia leader warned yesterday.
The emergency international force is being sent to the region to prevent a repetition of a massacre last month that left over 400 dead and raised fears of slaughter to rival the genocide in nearby Rwanda nine years ago. Bodies littered the streets of Bunia and some remains were cannibalised.
An uneasy calm prevails as volatile gunmen, many of them children, patrol the streets. If the UN tries to disarm them it could lead to "an explosive situation" said Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia. "It is impossible to disarm my forces. They would have to send an entire army to do that," he said, speaking at an abandoned Catholic retreat near Bunia.
Both the UPC, from the Hema tribe, and a rival Lendu militia have a reputation for brutal slayings using guns, machetes, knives and spears. Some of the recent victims had their stomachs slashed open or were decapitated.
Although disarmament is not explicitly authorised in the mandate issued in New York on Friday, many believe it is essential to prevent further bloodletting. "As long as they are only observing, it will change nothing," said Benoit Kasereka, who narrowly avoided being shot by a drunken UPC soldier three days ago.
Aid worker Nigel Pearson, standing outside the razor-wire-surrounded UN base, said: "They can't just concentrate on this place. They have to demilitarise the town, otherwise we can't do our job."
During the recent killing spree the 700 mostly Uruguayan troops stationed in Bunia remained at base, provoking a storm of criticism. Under the fresh mandate, French and British troops are allowed to use military force in response to any act of aggression. But they will be heading into a situation fraught with danger and muddled with ethnic and political complexities.
Most of the 300,000 townspeople have fled; those remaining live in fear of looting or rape. Hema militia as young as 10 patrol Bunia, on foot or in battlewagons. Some of the remaining Lendu have been quietly assassinated.
Neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, which have extensive military and economic interests in Congo, have recklessly fanned the generations-old rivalry between the two tribes. Now Lendu forces, armed by the Kinshasa government, are only a few miles outside town.
"If the UN troops cannot come very soon the town could descend into chaos, even this weekend," said Marcus Sack, an aid worker with German Agro Action.
France is expected to contribute about half of the emergency force. While the MoD has not confirmed British numbers, one source said it was "likely to be less than 200". British troops would "not have a frontline role", but could instead take charge of communications.
French involvement was initially opposed by Rwanda, which supports the UPC, because of France's tarnished record during the 1994 genocide. "We had some fears that the French would take sides. But we can accept a multinational force," said Mr Lubanga of the UPC.Reuse content