Bunia -Dozens of armed men on Friday stormed Bunia, the capital of DR Congo’s northeastern Ituri province, to demand the release of jailed militia fighters, the regional governor said. “They are in front of the central prison and are demanding the release of their men,” Jean Bamanisa told AFP. “They are negotiating. We are trying to calm them.” An AFPTV journalist said the men “were ringed by soldiers for the moment. “They are carrying white flags but they are heavily armed with rockets, AK-47 assault rifles and machetes.” However some local sources said the men had come to give themselves up. Several militia and rebel groups have been staging attacks in the region but this was the first time in recent years that they had entered a major city in the Great Lakes area bordering Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Locals blamed the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO), an armed group accused of ethnic attacks and killing over 1,000 civilians since December 2017, according to the United Nations.

CODECO is drawn from the Lendu ethnic group, a predominantly farming community who have historically clashed with the Hema, a group of traders and herders.

The two communities were embroiled in a bloody conflict between 1999-2003 which led to the European Union’s first foreign military mission, the short-term Operation Artemis.

Governor Bamanisa said the men were from a faction of the CODECO which “unilaterally wants to end hostilities.”

His deputy Gracien de Saint-Nicolas said: “We will not allow blood to be spilt in Bunia. The CODECO is Congolese and ready to give up arms but you are not facilitating the task for them to be reintegrated into the peace process.”

The UN’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, visited Ituri in January and denounced what she called “crimes against humanity” there.