Attackers ambushed U.N. peacekeepers on patrol in northeastern Congo on Friday, killing nine Bangladeshis in the deadliest assault on the world body’s largest peacekeeping mission, the United Nations said.
The attack occurred near the town of Kafe, 20 miles northwest of Bunia, capital of lawless Ituri province, U.N. spokesman Mamadou Bah said.
The slain peacekeepers were among 21 Bangladeshis patrolling Friday near a camp housing civilians displaced by persistent fighting in Ituri, Bah said.
“These blue helmets were out there protecting people, and they got ambushed while doing it,” Bah said.
U.N. peacekeepers wear blue helmets.
Since 1999, fighting in the vast northeastern district of Ituri has killed more than 50,000 and forced 500,000 to flee their homes, U.N. officials and human rights groups say.
There are 11,415 U.N. troops in Congo — the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with the force eventually expected to reach 16.000. Ituri has 4,800 of the troops.
The Ituri fighting is mainly between armed militia of the Hema and Lendu tribes. During the war, neighboring Uganda and Rwanda armed the Hema and Lendu militias, mainly to wrest control of the mineral-rich territory. The two sides eventually turned on one another.
There was no immediate word on the identity of the attackers, who wore no uniforms. Suspicion fell on militia of Ituri’s Lendu tribe, whose rivalry with the area’s Hema tribe has been fueled by the influx of arms from Congo’s devastating 1998-2002 war.
Attackers hid in the bush, struck quickly and ran away immediately after, said Col. Dominique Demange, head of the U.N. troops in Congo.
The United Nations sent an attack helicopter and a transport helicopter with a rapid reaction force, but bad weather limited their effectiveness, Demange said.
U.N. peacekeepers are overseeing a transition toward peace in Congo after the six nation war killed more than 3 million people by aid workers’ estimate, most through strife-induced hunger and disease.
Bangladesh has more than 1,300 peacekeepers in Congo.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh President Iajuddin Ahmed and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia issued separate messages of “condolence and profound sorrow” over the peacekeepers’ killings, military spokesman Lt. Col. Nazrul Islam said.