March 1, 2006

Congo militia use civilians as human shields: UN

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese militiamen fighting U.N.
peacekeepers and government troops are using civilians as human
shields in a battle raging in the northeast of the lawless
country, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

With Congo's first free national elections in 40 years due
in a few months, the world body has stepped up attempts to help
a chaotic national army pacify the east, where rebels and
militia still roam three years after war officially ended.

Hundreds of peacekeepers and thousands of government troops
have fought for three days to dislodge militia fighters from
the town of Tchei in northeastern Ituri district, where ethnic
violence has killed 60,000 people since 1999.

Far to the south, another large joint Congolese-U.N. joint
operation in South Kivu province has pushed hundreds of Rwandan
rebels from towns they controlled but failed to disarm them as
they melted into the thick jungle, spokesmen added.

U.N. military spokesman Major Hans-Jakob Reichen said
militia fighters in Ituri were keeping up resistance while bad
weather and rough terrain were hampering the joint U.N.-army

"The militia are using the civilians as human shields,"
Reichen said. "They are not letting them leave the area and
this is making our task much more difficult."

Reichen said that fighting continued at close quarters on
the ground while U.N. helicopter gunships had so far fired 118
rockets at the militia, who have been enslaving civilians and
looting in the area of Tchei, 60 km (40 miles) southwest of
Ituri's main town, Bunia.

Hundreds of civilians had fled the clashes and militiamen
were torching houses as they retreated, U.N. aid workers said.


"Soldiers are having to advance through the jungle on foot
and the helicopters cannot operate some of the time because of
the rain," Reichen said.

Democratic Republic of Congo's last conflict, a five year
war that sucked in six neighboring countries and spawned
numerous rebel groups and militias, officially ended in 2003
and legislative and presidential elections are due by mid-2006.

However, tens of thousands of Congolese and foreign gunmen
have resisted disarmament plans and continue to make vast
tracts of the mineral-rich east ungovernable and dangerous.

The fledgling national army also remains disorganized,
poorly equipped and unpaid and, as a result, is often feared as
much as the rebel groups it fights against.

But the U.N. and the Congolese army said on Wednesday that
300 peacekeepers and 1,000 government soldiers were involved in
fighting in a separate operation and had ousted hundreds of the
rebels from a two bases in South Kivu province.

"We have taken these towns but the operations are
continuing. We will continue until the rebels have left South
Kivu," said army spokesman Lt Kasanda wa Kasanda, adding that
six Rwandan rebels have been killed in the fighting, 70km (45
miles) northwest of Bukavu.

The U.N. has 17,000 soldiers and policemen in the Congo,
making it the world body's largest peacekeeping mission. But
they are stretched across a country the size of western Europe.

Four million people have died from war-related hunger and
disease in Congo since 1998, leading experts to dub the
conflict as the worst humanitarian disaster since World War