Peacekeepers are killed in Congo

9 U.N.

Militia fighters ambush Bangladeshi patrol trying to protect refugee camp


GOMA, Congo - Unidentified militia fighters ambushed and killed nine U.N. peacekeepers yesterday in the volatile Ituri region of eastern Congo. It was the worst attack in the six years of the mission and a sign of continued instability ahead of planned nationwide elections.

The nine soldiers were Bangladeshis on a foot patrol near the town of Kafe, about 20 miles northwest of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province. They were protecting a nearby camp housing thousands of people who fled their villages in recent weeks because of attacks by militias.

The fallen soldiers were part of a group of about 20 peacekeepers who were walking through rugged vegetation in the heavy rain when they were attacked, U.N. officials said.

The attack came as the peacekeepers have adopted a more aggressive posture in recent months, confronting and forcibly disarming militia groups that have been terrorizing the local population.

"These blue helmets were out there protecting civilians, and they got ambushed while doing it," said Mamadou Bah, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo, known by the French acronym Monuc.

Although a peace agreement has quelled much of the fighting in Congo, Ituri remains a lawless enclave marred by militia skirmishes and frequent attacks on the local people. In recent months more than 70,000 people have fled their homes and settled in camps scattered throughout the region.

"The situation has been deteriorating over the last two months," said Johannas Wedenig, the head of UNICEF in Goma. "Militias have been attacking civilians, and if Monuc was not protecting the people there would be no one to rely on. They'd be at the mercy of the armed men, who have been raping and killing and burning villages."

Although the attackers were not immediately identified, some suspect militias from the Lendu tribe, who are bitter rivals of the Hema, who also live in the area, and clash frequently with them.

There is some suspicion as well that the attack on the peacekeepers was in retaliation for the recent effort to confront the militias.

On Thursday, peacekeepers arrested 30 people just east of Bunia. Most of those arrested were believed to be members of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front, a Lendu militia.

Elections are planned in Congo for this year, although they will likely be put off until next year.

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