BUNIA, Congo – French troops leading an international force came under fire for the first time as they patrolled the outskirts of this war-wracked Congolese (search) town Saturday.
There were no French casualties and it was not clear if there were casualties among those who fired at the French troops, said Col. Gerard Dubois (search), a spokesman for the force.
The French patrol of about 70 troops and 20 vehicles returned small arms and light tank fire for about 20 minutes after they were fired on by unknown gunmen near Dele, a village about 4 miles south of Bunia (search).
Bunia is the capital of resource-rich Ituri province, which has been the scene of some of the worst atrocities of Congo's 5-year-old civil war.
The troops are part of a French-led international force that began deploying to Bunia on June 6 in an attempt to stem fighting between Lendu and Hema tribal factions that has killed hundreds of people in and around the town.
A commander with the Hema faction that controls Bunia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, said the gunmen who fired on the French were members of a Lendu faction that has been battling the UPC for control of the town.
"We were advancing on our traditional enemy and the French troops came from behind us and told us to stop and that they would move ahead of us," said Saba Rafiki, UPC's security chief. "The Lendu attempted to fight the French but fled after a short while when the French began using heavy weapons."
It was not possible to speak to Lendu militia commanders, who are in the rolling green hills that surround Bunia.
There are about 400 French troops in the town. At full strength the force will have 1,400 troops, some 800 of whom will be deployed in Bunia. The remainder will be stationed at the force's logistical base at an international airport in neighboring Uganda, and N'djamena, Chad and Libreville, Gabon, where 10 French Mirage jets supporting the force are based.
The force is supposed to reinforce some 750 U.N. troops in Bunia who can only fire in self-defense.
The international force is authorized to shoot to kill if necessary, but does not have the mandate to disarm the fighters or demilitarize the town.
The war erupted in August 1998 when neighboring Rwanda and Uganda sent troops into Congo to support rebels seeking to oust then-Congolese President Laurent Kabila. They accused him of supporting insurgents from their countries whom they said were threatening regional security.
Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent troops to back government forces.
The foreign troops have withdrawn, but fighting between rival rebel and tribal factions continues in eastern and northern Congo.