BUNIA, Congo – Women and children, some as young as 8, are fighting with militia forces who have attacked villages in eastern Congo and killed dozens while forcing more than 70,000 people to flee their homes, a U.N. spokesman said Saturday.
Kemal Saiki, the U.N. spokesman, described classic guerrilla warfare tactics.
“During the day these women could be at home grinding manioc, and two hours later have a machete or AK-47 blowing you away,” said Saiki.
Peacekeepers killed as many as 60 fighters last week after being fired upon near the village of Loga, some 20 miles north of Bunia, and villagers claim women and children were among those killed. Human rights groups were investigating those claims.
The militias, also suspected of killing nine U.N. peacekeepers in northeastern Congo, have taken thousands of people hostage to use as sex slaves, said Saiki.
Last week’s fighting marked the largest number of militia forces killed by peacekeepers during their six-year Congo mission.
The United Nations insists that peacekeepers only fired on combatants who were shooting at them.
“The U.N. is not trigger-happy,” said Saiki.
The conflict in the eastern Congo province of Ituri is a bloody sideshow to the country’s five-year, six-nation war that killed nearly 4 million people, according to aid groups. The war ended in 2002, but the subsequent transitional government has struggled to extend its authority to the east.
Villagers in Che, about 40 miles north of Bunia, said that children and women were among their attackers in a separate raid last month, where 18 people were killed and hundreds of homes burned.
“Men, women and even small children, from as young as 8 years, had weapons and were fighting,” said Augusta Ngone, who now lives in a swarming camp for displaced people, with 15,000 other residents who fled attacks in the area.
For years, Lendu militia in the region have targeted members of their rival Hema tribe. Fighting between Lendu and Hema militia has killed more than 50,000 people since 1999, U.N. officials and aid groups say. Dozens have died in raids since December, prompting the United Nations to send peacekeepers to several areas in the region to provide security.
More than 70,000 people are now living in temporary camps in the area, the United Nations said.