Congo army says it killed 33 militiaman in days of intense fighting

By Erikas Mwisi Kambale

BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Oct 28 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's army said on Wednesday it killed 33 militiamen and lost two soldiers as it seized two rebel strongholds in four days of intense fighting in the north-eastern Ituri province.

United Nations peacekeepers also helped the army repel an attack by a wing of the armed militia group known as CODECO, which attempted to storm the province's capital Bunia on Saturday, a U.N. spokesman said.

Drawn largely from the Lendu ethnic group, CODECO is accused by the U.N. of widespread and systematic killings, beheadings, rape and other barbaric acts that have contributed to prolonged instability in the east of the country.

Violence in the area has largely subsided since some elements of the group announced a ceasefire in August, following an appeal made through former warlords in the region.

On Saturday morning CODECO fighters loyal to the rebel leader known as "Mountain Wolf" attacked an army position near Dele, 6 km (4 miles) south-east of Bunia, the U.N. said in a statement.

"They wanted to teach our troops a lesson but instead they suffered themselves," said Jules Ngongo, an army spokesman.

Rich in natural resources, Ituri experienced some of the country's most vicious fighting between 1999 and 2007, after a power struggle between rebel groups descended into ethnic bloodshed, mostly between the Hema and Lendu communities.

After a decade of relative calm, tit-for-tat fighting resumed in December 2017, reviving longstanding tensions over land. The unrest has since evolved into more coordinated attacks by CODECO on the army and the Hema group.

Since June 2018, hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes in Ituri province, bringing the number of displaced people to more than a million.

(Writing by Hereward Holland Editing by Bate Felix and Giles Elgood)

((; +33 1 49 49 55 70 Twitter: @BateFelix;))

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