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As Congo prepares to vote, militia fire hits UN

As DR of Congo prepares to vote, militia fire hits UN helicopter, injuring pilot

The pilot of a United Nations peacekeeping helicopter in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was wounded yesterday when militiamen opened fire on his aircraft in the north-east of the vast country, where the world body is preparing for the largest and most challenging elections it has ever helped organize.

Seven persons were on board the helicopter, which was hit while flying 30 kilometres from Bunia, the main town in the troubled province of Ituri, on a sensitization mission during which it dropped leaflets calling on militiamen to disarm.

A bullet hit the pilot in the thigh and he was immediately taken to the military hospital of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) in Bunia for surgery. His life is not in danger, a spokesman said.

Ituri is one of most troubled regions of the country, where the 30 July vote is aimed at cementing the transition to peace from a disastrous six-year civil war that cost 4 million lives through fighting and attendant hunger and disease, widely considered the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II.

In Ituri and North and South Kivu provinces on the eastern border MONUC has been helping the national army, know by its French acronym FARDC, in operations against rebels and militias.

The latest incident follows intense fighting in recent days with militiamen opposed to disarmament. Last week, these rebels succeeded in recapturing one of their former strongholds, Tchéi, 80 kilometres south of Bunia.

Since May, the militia has intensified attacks against the positions of the FARDC, who have difficulties keeping control of territories they have retaken in this troubled district since 2005. Fighting among militia groups along with inter-ethnic violence has claimed more than 60,000 lives in Ituri since 1999.

Last year, over 15,000 combatants surrendered their arms in Ituri, but irredentist militiamen, estimated by MONUC to number up to 2,000, maintain a climate of terror, preventing 200,000 internally displaced persons from returning to their villages. More than 2,600 persons have laid down their weapons this year.

The Congolese electorate of 25.5 million voters will be called upon, for the first time in 45 years, to cast their vote in some 50,000 polling stations for some 33 presidential, over 9,000 national legislative and over 10,000 provincial assembly candidates. The polls will cost hundreds of million dollars.

MONUC currently has a total of 17,480 uniformed personnel, including 15,591 troops, 786 military observers and 1,103 police stationed throughout the country.

In Ituri and North and South Kivu provinces on the eastern border MONUC has been helping the national army in operations against rebels and militias.

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