There was an exchange of fire on the outskirts of Bunia, said Commander Xavier Pons. "We did not suffer any casualties but five or six militia fighters from the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) were killed,"  he said.

 

The force also seized munitions, grenades and assault rifles and proceeded to destroy certain UPC vehicles found there, he said.

  

Earlier on Friday the security force asked Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the UPC, a largely Hema force which previously controlled Bunia, to reduce his bodyguard, as efforts continue to keep weapons off the streets. Lubanga rejected the request.

 

Soon after its arrival in Bunia early last month, the French-led multinational force banned weapons from the streets of Bunia and forced the rebels to billet outside the town.

 

Indian contingent

 

Meanwhile, almost 250 Indian air force personnel backed by nine helicopters, including four gunships, got ready to leave for Congo on Friday, the country’s largest contribution to UN peacekeeping.

   

An air force spokesman in New Delhi said the 243-strong contingent would leave first to be followed later by an infantry company of about 90 soldiers.

   

In addition to five utility helicopters, the team will include four MI-35 gunships, the spokesman said. "These will be for self-defence," he added.

   

The Indian contingent will be deployed around Goma and Bunia near the borders with Rwanda and Burundi.

   

The United Nations has several thousand troops in Congo and its Secretary-General Kofi Annan is pushing for the limit for the force to be raised to 10,800 from 8,700.

 

The UN-mandated peacekeeping force's mission is to restore security in Bunia, capital of the northeastern Ituri region, where a bloody feud between rival Hema and Lendu ethnic groups has claimed some 50,000 lives since 1999.