BUNIA, Congo – Tribal fighters attacked this northeastern Congolese town in an apparent grab for more land Saturday, days before international peacekeepers arrive seeking to restore calm in the ravaged region.
Hundreds of people fled their homes after Lendu fighters launched dawn raids on positions held by the Union of Congolese Patriots (search), or UPC, a group from the Hema rival ethnic group that controls the town.
The Lendu (search)militia was after positions it lost to the UPC about 10 days ago and apparently wanted a foothold before the mostly French force — which could reach 1,700 troops — deploys in Bunia (search), capital of the unstable Ituri province.
A U.N. military observer in the town, who did not want to be named, said the Lendu fighters had been expected to try to beef up their presence before troops are in place.
On Friday, several dozen French troops flew in to prepare for the peacekeepers, who are supposed to reinforce some 750 U.N. troops deployed in the town.
The troops — whose mandate is to protect U.N. installations and personnel — can only fire in self-defense and have been unable to stem the violence.
The international force, which is to be deployed for three months under both U.N. and European Union mandates, will be authorized to shoot to kill if necessary. What role it will play, however, was unclear.
On Saturday, French soldiers focused on securing their base at the airport, four miles west of Bunia. Tribal fighters were less than 500 yards away, said a French officer who did not want to be identified.
Col. Denis Koehl, in charge of logistics for the French troops at Entebbe airport in neighboring Uganda said another 600 French army and air force troops would arrive in Entebbe on Sunday and Monday and will begin deploying in Bunia later next week.
Details of casualties in Saturday's fighting were sketchy, but an aid worker who did not want to be identified said the bodies of four civilians had been recovered.
The fighting was the first serious clash between the Hema and Lendu militia inside Bunia since the groups signed a cease-fire May 16. That agreement ended more than a week of fighting in which 500 people were believed killed.
Col. Daniel Vollot, the commander of U.N. forces in Bunia, said Lendu fighters had recaptured some areas outside town.
"They all want to fight," he said.
The fighting subsided later Saturday, but the town remained tense as Hema fighters patrolled the dusty streets, and gunfire echoed sporadically in the surrounding hills.
Two French journalists working for France-2, France's state-owned television network, went missing for several hours but they were later found safe, said Gerard Hinet, France-2's assistant news editor.
Hundreds of frightened residents took shelter at U.N. compounds at the airport and in the center of Bunia as bullets whizzed overhead.
Jeanne Tambwa, who has been living in the U.N. compound for a month with her six children, said the fighting proved it wasn't safe for her to return to her home in a Hema neighborhood.
"I live in a neighborhood that is deserted, and I'm scared of going back home to live alone because the Lendu might come and kill me," she said. "If I had been home, that would have been the end of me."
Ituri has seen fighting and massacres for several years as rival tribes and rebel factions fighting in Congo's 5-year civil war fought for control of the province's rich mineral deposits, vast forests and fertile land.
Hemas and Lendus have clashed for centuries over resources in Ituri. But the clashes became deadlier after Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese governments armed both groups as proxy fighters after the war erupted in August 1998.