BUNIA, Congo — French troops leading an emergency force in Congo came under fire for the first time Saturday in their mission to stabilize this northeastern town ravaged by tribal turf wars.
The firefight on the outskirts of Bunia, from which the French special forces emerged unscathed, occurred amid growing concern that the force's mandate is too limited and does not include the demilitarization of the town that six weeks ago boasted a university, a new mobile-phone network and a thriving trade in gold.
"I don't know why they are here," said Jan Mol, a Dutch priest who has lived in Bunia for 15 years. "It's just show."
The French patrol -- among the first 400 members of a force expected to number 1,400 -- returned small arms, heavy machine gun and light tank fire after being fired at about four miles south of Bunia, spokesman Maj. Xavier Pons said.
Pons said it was impossible to know who provoked the 20-minute battle and whether the 70 French troops and 20 vehicles were the targets or had been caught in the cross-fire between Lendu and Hema tribal militias.
The Hema Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, which controls the town, blamed the Lendu for the attack on the French patrol. The Lendu could not be reached for comment.
Later, French troops scoured the hilly area from where the fire had come but found "no corpses, nothing," Pons said.
The Hema and Lendu militias began intense fighting for control of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, in early May after about 6,000 troops from neighboring Uganda pulled out in accordance with an agreement to end a five-year civil war.
More than 400 people were killed in a week of fighting between the factions, which were armed with bows and arrows, machetes, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The high number of civilian deaths led the United Nations Security Council to authorize the deployment in Bunia of the international force, which began arriving on June 6.
The force, which is authorized to shoot to kill if necessary, has a three-month mission to secure the town and its airport and provide security for displaced people and aid agencies. But the troops won't be deployed outside Bunia where fighting continues and they don't have a mandate to disarm fighters.