6 April - The top United Nations official in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has voiced deep concern at a deadly attack in a region cited by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as showing the potential for local conflicts to rapidly escalate in the vast strife-torn country.

A UN peacekeeper and two contractors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) died when insurgents on Sunday attacked Mbandaka, the capital of the north-western province of Equateur, at the other end of the country from the continuing violence in the east.

“We can only deplore the resort to arms as a means of expression or furthering claims,” Mr. Ban's Special Representative Alan Doss said in a statement. “We urge everybody to use dialogue, exchanges and other peaceful means to have their voice heard.”

While hundreds and possibly thousands of people have been killed in recent years and more than a million others driven from their homes in the DRC's eastern Kivu provinces, where a conflict between a collection of rebel forces and the Government has prompted charges of human rights abuses – including mass rape – by all parties, Equateur had been relatively stable until last October when fighting erupted over fishing and farming rights.

Enyele militiamen launched deadly assaults on ethnic Munzayas in the Dongo area, driving over 100,000 people from their homes, and tensions have since expanded to most parts of Equateur, with the DRC army launching an offensive against the militia.

In Sunday's attack, a couple of dozen of insurgents arrived by boat, first striking at the governor's mansion and national assembly before temporarily occupying the airport, from where they were dislodged in a joint operation by the army and peacekeepers from he UN mission in the DRC (MONUC).

The attackers withdrew to the surrounding jungle around the airport and operations are continuing to neutralize them, MONUC said. Joint UN and Congolese units are also patrolling the streets to reassure residents of the town. “MONUC will continue to support efforts to protect the population and restore [peace and security in the city,” the mission said in a statement.

In his latest report on the DRC to the Security Council, released yesterday, Mr. Ban cited last year's clashes in Equateur as showing that local conflicts can rapidly escalate if they are not quickly and effectively defused by the authorities.

Beyond the continuing violence in the east MONUC has helped restore a measure of stability and democratic processes over the past decade to a country torn apart by years of civil war and revolts that resulted in the greatest human death toll since World War II – some 4 million people killed by the fighting and the attendant starvation and disease it produced.

In his report Mr. Ban said the country had made sufficient progress over much of its vast territory for the 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping force to withdraw up to 2,000 troops by the end of June.