Congo violence precedes peacekeepers

? Tribal fighters attacked this northeastern Congolese town in an apparent grab for more land Saturday, days before international peacekeepers arrive seeking to restore calm in the ravaged region.

Hundreds of people fled their homes after Lendu fighters launched dawn raids on positions held by the Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, a group from the Hema rival ethnic group that controls the town.

The Lendu militia was after positions it lost to the UPC about 10 days ago and apparently wanted a foothold before the mostly French force — which could reach 1,700 troops — deploys in Bunia, capital of the unstable Ituri province.

A U.N. military observer in the town, who did not want to be named, said the Lendu fighters had been expected to try to beef up their presence before troops are in place.

On Friday, several dozen French troops flew in to prepare for the peacekeepers, who are supposed to reinforce some 750 U.N. troops deployed in the town.

The troops — whose mandate is to protect U.N. installations and personnel — can only fire in self-defense and have been unable to stem the violence.

The international force, which is to be deployed for three months under both U.N. and European Union mandates, will be authorized to shoot to kill if necessary. What role it will play, however, was unclear.

On Saturday, French soldiers focused on securing their base at the airport, four miles west of Bunia.

Details of casualties in Saturday’s fighting were sketchy, but an aid worker who did not want to be identified said the bodies of four civilians had been recovered.

The fighting was the first serious clash between the Hema and Lendu militia inside Bunia since the groups signed a cease-fire May 16. That agreement ended more than a week of fighting in which 500 people were believed killed.