The United Nations has stepped up efforts to secure a limited ceasefire and move additional doctors and medical supplies into the troubled Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where rival groups have been fighting for control of the main town of Bunia for nearly two weeks.
According to a UN spokesman in New York, the counterattack on Bunia announced by Lendu militia for 9 o'clock this morning never materialized, but sporadic fighting continued as of mid-day. The town is occupied by rival Hema militia, which took control Monday after a weekend of deadly fire fights in this resource-rich region of the DRC.
The Deputy Force Commander of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC), Brig. Gen Roberto Martinelli, met today with leaders of the various warring sides to try and broker at least a 24-hour ceasefire in order to move internally displaced people to more secure locations, spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Meanwhile, suspected cases of cholera and dysentery have appeared among the 8,000 or so displaced persons who have taken refuge in each of the two UN compounds in Bunia. "The revised toll of yesterday's mortar attack on one of the compounds is five dead and 100 injured," Mr. Eckhard said, adding that there was no further information about the two UN military observers who have been missing since Tuesday despite continued efforts to find them.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has brought in a Congolese medical team from Goma, with three surgeons working out of a mobile clinic to support the UN medical team. UN humanitarian workers also reported that although there is a strong ethnic mix among the displaced, inter-ethnic relations in the two camps are good.
Still, UN aid workers and MONUC staff in Bunia reported thousands of fleeing civilians jamming the roads leading from the town trying to escape the bloody power struggle. UN officials have warned of a humanitarian disaster if the international community doesn't stop the fighting, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called on countries to contribute to an international security force to stabilize the region.
As urgent political talks are about to open today in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, between Congolese President Joseph Kabila and the members of the various factions to find a means of bringing peace through an interim administration established late last month, MONUC has confirmed a raft of atrocities that took place during the weekend fighting - including massacres and arbitrary executions - which left bodies lining many of Bunia's streets. Among the victims were children, infants and two priests, whose bodies were horribly mutilated.