Hundreds of United Nations troops backed by helicopter gunships swooped into a village in northeast Congo on Friday but failed to find militia fighters blamed for killing nine peacekeepers, officials said.
The operation, launched just before dawn at Penie, around 16 miles northeast of the region’s main city of Bunia, had aimed to hunt down the killers of the nine Bangladeshi U.N. soldiers who died in an ambush last month, U.N. sources said.
“We had names of some people we wanted to arrest in connection with the killings of the Bangladeshis. They were supposed to be in this village but we did not arrest any,” said one U.N. military source.
Four companies of soldiers took part in the operation, using Mi-24 attack helicopters, armored vehicles and transport helicopters, U.N. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Dominique Demange said. A company usually numbers 150 soldiers.
Witnesses said U.N. helicopter gunships had been leaving the airport at Bunia, the main city in the mineral-rich and lawless Ituri district, throughout the morning.
The United Nations has been criticized in the past for being ineffective in reining in marauding militias in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo, but has said it plans to step up operations to dismantle their training camps in the region.
“(The operation) is a failure from the point of view that they did not arrest any militia but in a sense it was a success because word will get around that the U.N. mission is serious,” said a second U.N. military source.
The peacekeepers had also been looking for 350 cows stolen by gunmen last Saturday from a nearby village, one U.N. official said, after residents reported the attackers had been wearing blue helmets like those worn by U.N. troops.
It was not clear whether any cattle had been recovered.
U.N. soldiers killed at least 50 militiamen in a fierce gunbattle involving helicopter gunships on March 1 at Loga village, five days after the Bangladeshi soldiers died.
The clash was one of the biggest involving U.N. troops deployed in Congo, while the attack on the Bangladeshis was the worst single loss suffered by the U.N. peace mission since it began in the former Zaire in 1999.
An upsurge in fighting in the northeast since late last year has damaged efforts by the former Belgian colony to recover from a wider five-year war. The U.N. mission — the world body’s biggest peacekeeping operation — has deployed nearly a third of its 16,000 blue helmets in the Ituri district alone.
Fighting between militias and attacks on civilians in Ituri have displaced some 100,000 people and caused a humanitarian catastrophe, according to the United Nations.
A U.N. military source has said the dead fighters in the Loga attack were members of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) militia.
The FNI is a Lendu-dominated militia which has been battling rival Hema factions in a conflict that has killed more than 50,000 people in northeastern Congo since 1999.