On January 19, rival Lendu and Hema militias killed at least one hundred and fifty civilians in the northeastern Congo town of Bunia. Uganda is one of six foreign governments that have intervened in the civil war in the Congo (DRC) where its troops now control a sizable portion of the northeast.
"Foreign troops should not be taking sides in Congo's civil war," said Alison Des Forges, consultant to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "But if they are there, they should certainly not be complicit in attacks against civilians. The perpetrators should be apprehended and punished."
The outbreak of violence does not appear to be connected to the recent death of Congolese President Laurent Kabila and the transition of power to his son, Joseph Kabila. But it does further destabilize northeastern Congo at a time of uncertainty in the capital of Kinshasa.
Militia of the Lendu and affiliated Ngiti people attacked near the Bunia airport at dawn, carrying to the provincial capital the violence which has taken scores of lives in villages to the south of Bunia in the last three weeks. One of their objectives was apparently to disable a Ugandan helicopter that had been used to attack them in the earlier conflicts. The militiamen, who attacked with bows and arrows and spears, were driven back by the Ugandans using heavy weapons. The Lendu and Ngiti militia then attacked Hema families in several residential areas, killing more than fifty and wounding another twenty. In reprisal killings later in the day, Hema militia wielding machetes searched houses in Lendu areas and killed more than one hundred people.
Representatives of humanitarian organizations were reluctant to go to the assistance of victims because extremists have recently accused them of taking sides in the dispute or even of supplying arms to one of the rival groups.
Some local observers believe that Ugandan support for the Hema, a local minority group related to the Hima of Uganda, has aggravated the long-standing ethnic conflict. According to early reports from local residents, Ugandan soldiers at first did nothing to stop the January 19 attacks and their commanding officer, Col. Edison Muzoora, failed to respond to pleas to halt the killing. Bunia residents belonging to none of the rival groups finally intervened to stop the slaughter. Only then or shortly after did Ugandan soldiers begin patrolling the streets to restore order.