French troops regrouped after
coming under fire on Saturday

The east Congolese town has been paralysed by fear as ethnic fighting between Hema and Lendu militias has forced many to flee.

"The situation remains calm in the town but we can still hear the occasional shooting way to the south of the town," said Major Xavier Pons, a French commander in the multinational force. "It is impossible to say who is doing this."

French troops have been patrolling the town over the past few days as part of an international force to protect civilians and aid workers.

On Saturday, the predominantly French EU peacekeeping force was engaged in fighting for the first time since their 10 June deployment.

French officers initially said they had been attacked, but after a more detailed assessment, they said that it was difficult to tell whether they had been fired at or simply run into a bout of shooting between rival gunmen.

 Mass grave

In another development, the UN’s observer mission in Bunia, known as MONUC, said it was investigating the disappearance of 15 people in the town.

"Since 8 June we have had confirmation that 16 people have disappeared and the body of only one of these has been found," said MONUC spokesperson, Madnodje Mounoubai.

An investigation has begun to
determine the existence of mass
graves

Rumours of mass graves have been circulating, but there has been no confirmation of their existence.

MONUC's role is limited to observing a ceasefire between the Congolese government forces and Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebels.

But MONUC does not have the mandate to intervene militarily, and in many flashpoints its soldiers can do nothing but sit and watch as killings are carried out.

The EU force however, has been mandated by the United Nations to protect civilians and aide agencies in Bunia, who have found themselves trapped in fierce fighting between the majority Lendu and the minority Hema.

They are also permitted to open fire in legitimate self-defence and to protect civilians and aid workers.

About 50,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since 1999 as a result of fighting between the two groups.

The brutal war that began in 1998 has so far resulted in some 2.5 million deaths, either directly in combat or indirectly through disease and malnutrition.

The violence intensified in May, when the Hema seized control of Bunia following the pull-out of Ugandan soldiers from the town.

Hundreds of civilians have died in ethnic massacres since then, triggering a decision by the UN and France to send peacekeepers.

There are about 400 EU soldiers in Bunia. The force is due to reach the full strength of 1,500 in two weeks' time with the arrival of Canadian and Belgian units from neighbouring Uganda.