- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

KWANDRUMA, Congo — Swooping in by helicopter, Lt. Col. Robert Polley had a simple message for the Lendu tribal leaders who control this village in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The time for numerous armed groups is over,” the British officer, a member of the new U.N. force in the region, said last Thursday.

“We have every intention of peacemaking and peacekeeping,” he warned them. “We have the mandate, troops, equipment and the will to do so.”

It’s a tough message from the new force charged with putting an end to the fighting between the Hema and Lendu tribal militias that has ravaged Ituri province, killing thousands.

It’s also a major shift in strategy for the United Nations, which has sent troops to Ituri before, but only to protect staff and equipment.

The five-year civil war in Congo has all but ended, but fighting between the two tribes, a disastrous byproduct of the conflict, continues throughout much of the resource-rich province.

Last month, Lendu fighters killed at least 200 people and abducted scores during a series of attacks that destroyed the town of Fataki, 40 miles northwest of Bunia, Hema fighters said.

Officials from the U.N. mission in Congo — known as MONUC — could not confirm the figures.

But military observers who flew over Fataki in helicopter gunships shortly afterward spotted only a few people picking through the remains of smoldering houses, said Leo Salmeron, a MONUC spokesman.

A 2,000-strong French-led European Union force was sent to the provincial capital, Bunia, in June to secure the city and enable aid workers to operate after weeks of Hema-Lendu fighting that had killed about 500 people and caused thousands to flee.

The EU force received the mandate after about 700 Uruguayan peacekeepers in Bunia found themselves outnumbered and outgunned by the rebels when fighting erupted in May after the withdrawal of Ugandan troops.

The Uruguayans were only allowed to shoot in self-defense, and had to hunker down behind sandbags and razor wire as Congolese civilians died in the streets around them.

While the French-led force had a mandate to stabilize Bunia, the new U.N. force that took over Sept. 1 has orders to fan out into the surrounding countryside, sweeping through villages in search of weapons. The thousands of fighters in Ituri will be put in camps to learn how to lead normal lives.

“Those who resist us, they will be isolated and regarded as criminal gangs,” said Brig. Gen. Jan Isberg, deputy commander of the U.N. force.

U.N. soldiers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Uruguay numbering 2,500 have arrived in Ituri. An additional 2,300 are on the way.

When fighting breaks out, U.N. soldiers will “intervene wherever and whenever necessary,” said Maj. Gen. Mountaga Diallo, commander of the forces.

However, the international forces have an enormous task, and it is not clear how cooperative the Hema and Lendu will be. The Lendu leaders sat stone-faced as Col. Polley described the new policy in the village of Kwandruma near Lake Albert.

They said later that they only fight when provoked and will be glad to stop.

What is clear is that the residents of Kwandruma want an end to the fighting, which has killed an estimated 50,000 people in recent years.

“We have fled our homes and hid in the bush too many times, we have abandoned our farms too many times, and we have lost too much and too many relatives,” said Laleni Kakura, 42, a mother of six.

The Hema and Lendu traditionally have clashed over land and resources in the fertile province rich with timber, gold and the mineral coltan, used to make mobile phones.

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