NAIROBI, March 2 -- At least 50 Congolese militiamen were killed in a gun battle with U.N. peacekeepers Tuesday when the U.N. troops, backed by an attack helicopter and armored vehicles, stormed a militia camp in a volatile enclave of northeastern Congo in the largest show of force since the mission by the United Nations began six years ago.
The firefight took place near the village of Loga, the same area where nine peacekeepers from Bangladesh were killed in an ambush Friday while on foot patrol in heavy rains, Col. Dominique Demange, spokesman for the U.N. forces in Congo, said in a telephone interview.
"We went to investigate the camp. We were fired on and we responded," Demange said. "There was a lot of chaos and arrests were later made."
Two peacekeepers wounded in the barrage of gunfire were flown to South Africa for medical care, Demange said. In conjunction with Congolese authorities, U.N. officials arrested several leaders of the militia accused of killing the Bangladeshis, Justice Minister Kisimba Ngoy told reporters in Congo's capital, Kinshasa.
Etienne Lona, a leader of the militia alleged to have carried out the ambush, turned himself in to U.N. peacekeepers Tuesday.
The fresh violence highlights the fragility of peace in the lush, mineral-rich region following a five-year war that killed an estimated 4 million people, most of whom died of hunger and disease. The conflict drew in at least six African nations.
A peace agreement has been in place in eastern Congo since 2002, but fighting continues in the lawless Ituri region, where at least seven militias vie for control of the area's diamonds and gold.
At least 30,000 armed militiamen and youths are reported to roam Ituri's forests. They have been blamed for looting villages and terrorizing civilians. In the last few months of skirmishes among militias, at least 70,000 villagers were driven from their homes, adding to a total of 2.5 million people who have been displaced by the war.
After the killing of the Bangladeshi troops, U.N. officials suspended aid to 54,000 people in the increasingly dangerous region.
None of Ituri's militias is part of the peace deal. With no representatives in Congo's transitional government, they have little interest in national elections planned for this year, analysts said.
"If the U.N. looks for militia, they are going to find them," said Jim Terrie, an expert on the Ituri region at the Nairobi chapter of the International Crisis Group. Even if the U.N. forces are "acting more robustly" in pursuing those who killed the Bangladeshis, he said, "they need to take a different path to achieve peace and not just justice for a small group."
The U.N. mission in Congo, one of the largest and most expensive U.N. operations, has been widely criticized for failing to stop the violence in Ituri.
In May 2003, about 500 civilians were killed in Bunia, the regional capital, while a small contingent of U.N. troops from Uruguay did nothing to protect them. Some were shot by teenage fighters as they tried to scramble to safety over the razor wire surrounding the U.N. compound.
Since then, the U.N. Security Council has beefed up the mission's mandate, allowing the peacekeepers to protect civilians. Still, the violence has continued. Last June, a breakaway faction of Congo's army stormed Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, while U.N. troops stood by. The inaction sparked riots in Kinshasa, where thousands torched U.N. vehicles.
The Congo mission's credibility was further weakened by reports in recent months that U.N. troops had raped Congolese women and girls, or had offered them money and food in exchange for sex. In the wake of the scandal, the top U.N. envoy in Congo, William Lacy Swing, is reportedly expected to resign. He has not been named in the investigation.