- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda An eruption of violence in eastern Congo has cast fresh doubt on the huge African nation's fragile peace process and has highlighted the conflict in Congo's most explosive region.
Yesterday, the province of Ituri, near Congo's border with Uganda, turned into the latest battleground of a war that has claimed roughly 2.5 million lives through war, disease and starvation.
The fighting also led a key rebel group to pull out of talks aimed at creating a transition government in the huge central African nation, a blow to Congo's already shaky peace process.
In an early morning assault, troops from Uganda, which have stayed on in Congo despite a previous commitment to withdraw, stormed the town of Bunia, the main population center in Ituri. The Ugandan troops, aided by tribal militias, routed the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and sent its leader, Thomas Lubanga, fleeing into the bush.
U.N. officials, who have military observers in the area, said it is not clear who started the fighting. Uganda has accused the UPC of plotting an attack, while the UPC says that Uganda, in concert with the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila, incited the latest clash.
Because the UPC recently struck an alliance with the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), the Rwanda-backed rebel movement that controls the largest chunk of eastern Congo, the RCD pulled out of Congo's peace talks in Pretoria, South Africa.
"We cannot continue to negotiate with a government that sends a team to negotiations and another, the army, to kill people and resume the war," said RCD Secretary General Azarias Ruberwa.
The talks in Pretoria, South Africa, were supposed to iron out the details of a December plan for a transitional government that Mr. Kabila has said he wants to put in place by early April.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a Feb. 21 report to the Security Council, said that Congo needs both negotiations and a winding down of hostilities, but now both seem out of reach.
"The importance of a political solution to underpin any military disengagement and cease-fire is key," Mr. Annan wrote.
Yesterday's violence underscored the role of Ituri province, which has been the scene of rising tension among rival armies, in keeping Congo's war going.
"Ituri is the worst of the worst in Congo, and it's not going to get better soon," said one humanitarian worker who asked not to be named.
The United Nations believes that up to 50,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ituri, which it has called "a war within a war," began in 1999. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes, and epidemics such as cholera and measles are common.
In response to the rising military tension, thousands of child soldiers, some as young as 8, have been drawn into the war, according to U.N. officials.
With natural resources such as gold, timber and, possibly, oil, Ituri presents a tempting target for any armed group, and the plunder of the country's natural resources has been a prominent feature of the war.
Layered over the armed groups is an ethnic conflict. The UPC is dominated by the Hema tribe, while Uganda stands accused of arming militias of the rival Lendu group in response.

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