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Thousands flee fighting in Congo

Bunia compound
More than 15,000 people are living in compounds in Bunia.

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BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of Congolese, fearing for their lives due to ethnic fighting, are attempting to flee Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, aid agencies said Wednesday.

More than two thirds of the population of the northeast town has already left, just days after the U.N. Security Council voted to deploy a force to help stabilize the conflict.

Officials believe more than 50,000 people have fled south, while 30,000 have been displaced inside the town.

Last week, the United Nations announced that a 1,000-strong French-led international force will work with U.N. peacekeepers to attempt to restore order in the country.

Since the pull-out of Ugandan troops, responding to last year's peace accord to end the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rival Lendu and Hema tribal groups have been fighting for control of the town.

More than 400 people have been killed in recent clashes in Bunia.

One Congolese refugee said: "Everyone's happy they [U.N. personnel] are coming, but what's their intention? To restore security here in Ituri district, or help Ituri and the Kinshasa government reunite?"

U.N. officials who returned last week from the northeast town said they had never seen a humanitarian crisis like this on such a large scale.

"We've seen the most horrible things in Bunia. Women who've lost their arms and legs, child amputees, men chopped to bits, women raped," said Carolyn McAskie, a U.N. official.

McAskie said that more than 15,000 people were now crowded in a U.N. compound in Bunia under constant security threats and in deteriorating conditions.

"We have no homes, everything's gone," said another refugee, "We are suffering here, getting rained on."

A makeshift town and community has been built behind the U.N. headquarters for those who have abandoned their homes.

Many refugees in the Bunia camps say they are hungry and too afraid to return to their war-torn homes.

"I stay here," said one refugee, a teacher, "because my house has been ransacked. They broke down the door and I don't have the money to mend it."

One of the rebel factions dominating the town has offered to protect those who want to leave the camp and say they will co-operate with the multinational force -- due to arrive later this month -- if it does not try to disarm them.

One refugee who fled with a group of Lendu, told CNN how she had stayed with the tribe overnight without them realizing she was part of the rival faction, Hema. She said she witnessed acts of cannibalism.

The U.N. Security Council hopes to establish a transitional government. But the U.N. resolution authorizing the additional force states the condition that "all the parties to the conflict in Ituri and in particular Bunia cease hostilities immediately."

-- CNN's Nairobi Bureau Chief Catherine Bond contributed to this report


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