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War and violence ravage Congo

A Drodro house burned down in the four-hour massacre on April 3.
A Drodro house burned down in the four-hour massacre on April 3.

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NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) -- Ravaged by warring tribal militias and rebel factions, and beyond the reach of many aid agencies, eastern Congo is one of the worst affected areas in a devastating and complex civil war.

Fighting between the Lendu and Hema tribes in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri province has killed thousands of people in recent years in a conflict over land and resources.

Aside from ethnic tensions, political feuds among Congolese rebel leaders and their foreign backers -- Rwanda and Uganda -- have also fuelled the clashes in northeastern Congo.

Amnesty International said in a 2002 report that fighting between members of the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups had killed an estimated 50,000 people, mainly civilians, since June 1999 and forced around 500,000 people to flee the province.

Long running conflicts between the pastoralist Hema and Lendu farmers mirror the relationship between the minority Tutsis and majority Hutus in nearby Rwanda -- where 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis were killed in the 1994 genocide. It was partly to pursue the perpetrators of that genocide that Rwanda invaded Congo in 1998.

The Lendu, who number some 700,000 in the area, live primarily from their crops. The wealthier 150,000 Hema rely on both cattle raising and cultivation.

After Congo's civil war began in 1998, guns poured into the region from Rwanda and Uganda and made their way into the hands of tribal militias previously armed with machetes and spears.

Much of Ituri is controlled by troops from Uganda, the last foreign state to have soldiers openly in Congo, although it has pledged to withdraw by April 24.

Uganda is traditionally close to the Hema, but its troops have clashed with the Rwandan-backed Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), which has accused Uganda of siding with the Lendu and using their militia to contain the Hema.

Rwanda says it has already withdrawn its tens of thousands of troops from eastern Congo, but has threatened to send them back if Uganda does not keep to its pledge to pull out its forces.

Bunia, the biggest town in Ituri and strategically located near the Ugandan border, lies at the epicentre of the conflicts and is a gateway for exploration of timber and gold.

Following are key events in the conflict:


• Rwanda and Uganda invade Congo to back rebels fighting to oust Congolese President Laurent Kabila, just over a year after the two neighbouring countries propelled him to power.


• January -- Aid groups say thousands have died from fighting between Hema and Lendu around the town of Bunia since mid-1999. Uganda deploys more troops to cool ethnic tensions.

• May -- Fighting between Rwandan and Ugandan forces destroys much of largest eastern Congo city Kisangani, which Rwandans capture.


• January -- Amnesty International says it fears more violence after 200 people die in fighting between Hema and Lendu near Bunia. It blames the Ugandan army for not stopping the killings.


• June -- Congo's Hema tribe release report of what they said were attacks on 73 villages in the Ituri region in which 1,468 Hema had been killed in the two months since the end of May. There was no independent confirmation of the figures.

• October -- Amnesty International urges United Nations to prevent "genocide" in northeastern Congo.


• January -- Over 100,000 people flee as rival rebel groups battle for control of mineral-rich region near town of Beni.

• March 2 -- Congolese rebels say 467 civilians are killed by pro-government soldiers, tribal militia and Ugandan army troops south of Bunia. Uganda denies involvement.

• March 6 -- Ugandan troops drive the Rwandan-allied Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) from Bunia after fierce fighting. Rwanda warns it will send troops back to Congo if Uganda does not withdraw its remaining forces.

• March 19 -- Hema and Lendu militias sign ceasefire deal, paving the way for peace talks.

• March 20 -- Ugandan army says it captured two towns in eastern Congo -- fueling fears of renewed conflict with Rwanda.

• The United Nations says Ugandan and Congolese governments agree to delay Ugandan troop withdrawal to April 24, citing security concerns in the region.

• April 5 -- Ituri Pacification Commission begins peace talks.

• April 6 -- The United Nations receives reports of hundreds of Hema massacred by Lendu tribal militias armed with machetes and guns on April 3 and buried in mass graves around Drodro.

• April 9 -- Region's leaders hold summit in Cape Town where Uganda confirms plan to withdraw from Congo by April 24 and that "Third Party Verification Mission" should investigate Ugandan claims that Rwandan troops have returned to Congo.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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