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U.N. forces kill 60 Congo militia

United Nations
Democratic Republic of Congo Republic

(CNN) -- U.N. peacekeepers have killed up to 60 Congolese militiamen in fierce fighting in a lawless region where nine Bangladeshi soldiers were killed last week, according to the U.N.

The deaths occurred during a U.N. air and ground operation on Tuesday northeast of Bunia, the capital of the eastern Ituri province.

The operation was launched by South African, Pakistani and Nepalese troops near the town of Loga. The region is controlled by militia that the United Nations says continues to spread terror and looting.

"It's an ongoing process to put an end to the activities of these militia," U.N. spokeswoman Eliane Nabaa in Kinshasa told CNN Wednesday, who said that in the aftermath of the operation, it appears that between 50-60 suspected militiamen were killed.

On Tuesday, three militia fighters were arrested in the killings of the nine U.N. peacekeepers on patrol in the same area of the country, formally known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Floribert Njabu, president of the Nationalist Integrationist Front (FNI), Goda Sopka, also from FNI, and Germain Katanga, from the Patriotic Resistance Forces in Ituri, were all arrested in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

In the Ituri, "these militias are refusing to join the mainstream, and refusing the choice they have to disarm and join the demobilization and the government forces," Nabaa said.

Those killed Tuesday are "potentially militiamen -- we cannot be sure 100 percent," she said. The U.N. and local authorities are investigating.

The nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were killed Friday in what the United Nations called a premeditated attack in the lawless Ituri region. Dujarric said it was one of the worst single-day incidents in recent peacekeeping history.

It was believed the attack came in response to peacekeepers' efforts to neutralize the militia, which U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said had been terrorizing locals, looting and carrying out illegal tax collections.

The nine soldiers were taking part in a 21-man foot patrol ambushed about three miles (five kilometers) west of Kafe, said U.N. spokesman Mamadou Bah in Kinshasa.

Brazilian Ambassador to the U.N. Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg, who is serving as the rotating president of the Security Council for the month of March, issued a statement on Wednesday in New York condemning the attack on the peacekeepers.

"The Security Council considers this aggression -- by its intentional and well-planned nature -- to be an unacceptable outrage... and calls upon the government to immediately take all necessary measures to bring to justice the perpetrators," Sardenberg read.

U.N. peacekeepers have been in the Congo since November 1999, but increased their presence in Ituri in May 2003 after ethnic violence increased in the region.

According to the U.N., fighting between the Hema and Lendu tribes in Ituri has claimed more than 50,000 lives since 1999. In addition, 50,000 people have been displaced because of the behavior of militias, Nabaa said. "This has to end."

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