Congo Is Site of Africa's 'First World War'

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Editor's Note: This is the first in a four-part series on the troubles in the Congo, compiled from Fox News' Steve Harrigan's first-hand reports in the war-ravaged African region.

BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- There are two Congos, sometimes known as the good one and the bad one.

To get to the worst part of the bad Congo -- the town of Bunia (search) in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- you have to hire your own plane. There are no roads.

The runway in Bunia is the most important and heavily guarded patch of land in Eastern Congo. It's the only way to get in troops and supplies, which makes any peacekeeping operation expensive.

Ground transportation is just as difficult.

Anyone rich enough to own a car in Bunia fled long ago. That means the only way to get around is by motorcycle.

The town was left virtually empty after Lendus, the ethnic group that made up the majority of the population, fled into the hills following the Hema capture of the town in late May.

After much debate, a small U.N. force arrived this summer. The force has grown to more than 1,000, but the violence continues.

The force was sent initially to protect civilians fleeing the fighting, and now, its mission is to begin disarming the fighters in the city. They keep watch up in towers and on top of armored personnel carriers -- as far as possible above the dirt, the mud, where thousands of people live much like they did in the Stone Age (search).

There are many possible explanations as to how the situation became so horrid.

The Hema minority is fighting the Lendus. Human Rights Watch (search) says these ethnic killings have claimed more than 4,000 lives in the past eight months alone. It's the world's deadliest war since 1945.

Neighboring countries --- a half dozen of them -- have joined or backed different factions to share in the spoils of a land rich with oil, gold and coltan, a mineral used to make cell phones, which sells for $200 a pound.

The result is called Africa's "first World War."

It involves an ethnic, civil, international conflict that has taken more than 3 million lives through combat, disease and starvation since it began in 1998, according to the International Rescue Committee (search).

Two million people are displaced inside Congo, and many of the estimated 5 million people living there are suffering from abuses. Mass graves have been found. The refugee situation is dire.

Aid workers say about 30 percent of those are children under 18. In Bunia, children make up about half the fighters.

On June 30, Congo President Joseph Kabila (search) signed a new power-sharing government, joining Congo's existing government and rebels. The pact divides 36 ministries among the government, rebel movements and pro-government militias, political parties and representatives of civil society, in line with a December peace accord.

Congo's two main rebel groups are scheduled to meet Tuesday on the new power-sharing government.

Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Uganda-backed Congolese Liberian Movement and Azarias Ruberwa of the Rwanda-allied Congolese Rally for Democracy -- both of them vice presidents in the new government -- will also be sworn in with two other vice presidents, Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi, allied to Kabila, and Arthur Z'Ahidi Ngoma, a member of the country's unarmed political opposition.

The new government, headed by Kabila, will meet for the first time on July 19.

The war started in August 1998 when neighboring Rwanda and Uganda backed Congolese rebels to overthrow then-President Laurent Kabila, accusing him of harboring armed militias and backing insurgents that posed a threat to security. Human rights groups say Kabila killed, tortured, imprisoned and caused the "disappearance" of anyone who he thought threatened him or his regime.

Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia sided with the government.

After a series of peace deals, many foreign troops withdrew, but fighting among rival rebel factions and others continued in many parts in the east and northeast, particularly in Bunia.

Relations between Uganda and the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), which it had supported, went south this year after the rebels demanded the withdrawal of Ugandan troops. The Hema-armed UPC is now backed by Rwanda. Meanwhile, the Congolese rebels have split into more than a dozen factions.

A French-led European Union peacekeeping force sent to Bunia under a U.N. order is now at 1,100 troops in Bunia, with 600 others at a base in neighboring Uganda. Another 150 troops are based in the N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, to provide air support and reconnaissance for the ground soldiers.

The force was deployed to rid Bunia of anyone armed after a horrific spree of executions, abductions and rapes.

All parties involved are hoping the meeting of the new government will pave the way for pulling the country out of the war it's been mired in for so long.

Part 2: The fighters, many of them children, of Congo's wars.

Fox News' Steve Harrigan, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.