Bunia — Inter-ethnic tensions have again turned violent in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri region, compromising the delivery of humanitarian aid to more than 100,000 people, according to officials there.
Some 13 civilians have been killed in recent weeks, according to civil society sources.
An estimated 60,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Ituri between 1998 and 2003 as ethnically aligned armed groups vied for control of power and resources, notably gold deposits.
According to a 27 July memo by a coalition of civil society organizations, the decomposed bodies of five members of the Hema community were found in Kapuru, a settlement on the shore of Lake Albert in an area under the control of the Front de la resistance patriotique en Ituri (FRPI) armed group, about 100km south of Bunia, Ituri's main city.
"The rebels captured six of them as they were heading to Uganda to visit a sick relative, demanding money," recounted the brother of one of the victims.
"The rebels said, 'You have refused to join our group, we're going to kill you,' and they opened fire. One of them escaped after the rebels cut off his hand with a machete," he added.
The spokesperson for the Hema-sud community, Aliegera Kwonke, said, "We in the Hema community feel targeted. The FRPI don't allow us to go about our business, our roads are blocked, our crops looted. Our people are massacred under the noses of the army. We don't feel safe."
A few days after the bodies were found, a member of the Ngity community disappeared in the same area, prompting demonstrations in the lakeside villages of Nyamavi and Soni by Ngity youths brandishing machetes and other weapons.
On 2 August, the population of Ndimo, 160km southwest of Bunia, barricaded the road leading to North Kivu Province and displayed the corpses of five people killed by unidentified assailants.
"We call on our Ituri brothers to consider the lives of others, not to swallow the bait of the enemies of peace," said Ignace Bingi, the chairman of the Ituri Community of Religious Faiths.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 11 humanitarian projects in southern Ituri dealing with shelter, water, sanitation, civilian protection and food security had been affected.
"Humanitarians are afraid to use the roads because every day something happens. Even medical supplies have to be hidden for fear of looting or being taken by one armed group or another," said Francesca Fraccaroli, the head of OCHA's office in Orientale province.
In July, two of Ituri's territories - Mambasa and Irumu - were found to be in a state of "acute food security and livelihood crisis" after data about household food consumption, livelihoods, nutrition and mortality had been analysed.
In April, the UN stabilization mission in DRC, MONUSCO, had offered to help the national army (FARDC) neutralize the FRPI, but the government came out in favour of talks with the group, said Bill Tchagbele , MONUSCO spokesman in Ituri.
Informal talks took place in May, but an agreement reached the following month for the group's fighters to be confined to their bases broke down on 9 July following clashes between government forces and the FRPI in Koga, about 100km south of Bunia on the shores of Lake Albert.
"It's as if people have been taken hostage. The situation has become more complicated because of the war in eastern DRC. FARDC elements here deployed to the Kivus and the rebels moved in to fill the gap," said Tchagbele.
MONUSCO, which has 4,000 troops in northeast DRC, recently set up temporary bases in locations to the South of Bunia-Kasenyi, Kabona and Kagaba - where rebels and militia groups operate.
"We can't put a soldier behind every civilian to protect them," conceded Tchagbele.
According to FARDC operational chief of staff General Dieudonné Amuli, FRPI leader Cobra Matata has again agreed to group his fighters in three sites. These have been identified as Gety, Kagaba and Aveba - 50, 75 and 90km south of Bunia respectively. But as of August 20, no actual disarmament had begun.
Armed groups have generally blamed the army for the failure of previous agreements.
"How can we trust negotiations and dialogue when the FRPI and COGAI [Coalition of Ituri Armed Groups*] are subject to provocation, attack and false accusations?" said COGAI spokesman Jean Eneko when IRIN contacted him by phone.
Eneko denied any involvement in the recent killings.
"This is manipulation by people in Bunia under the orders from Kinshasa, which sets back negotiations and leads us to make threats, such as the one to march on Bunia," he added.
Links to M23
District commissioner Freddy Bosomba said, "There will be no war. We have buried too many people. Do we need to keep killing? No, we will stand up to them."
"There are certain people here in Ituri who have relations with the M23 rebels. There are infiltrators, they want to start a war. But the people must denounce them," Bosomba said, addressing an emergency meeting of Ituri community leaders on 8 August.
In July, FARDC arrested a FARDC colonel on suspicion of recruiting for M23 in Bunia.
The man who led the mutiny that evolved into M23, Bosco Ntaganda, used to be the deputy head of an Ituri rebel group opposed to the FRPI, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).
In July 2012, UPC leader Thomas Lubanga was convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to 14 years imprisonment for recruiting children. Ntaganda faces similar charges before the court but remains at large.
FRPI founding leader, Germain Katanga, is currently on trial at the ICC.
*Earlier this year FRPI's Matata forged an alliance with three other armed groups in Ituri: the Front populaire pour le développement durable de l'Ituri (led by d'Eneko Kila), the Force armée pour la révolution ("Kabuli") and the Forces armées d'Intégration de l'Ituri (Charité Semire). Collectively, these groups want a government amnesty and for Ituri to be elevated from a district to a full-fledged province of DRC.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]