Suspected Ugandan rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo hacked 36 people to death with machetes and axes, authorities said Sunday, as an outcry grew against the failure of the army and UN peacekeepers to stop a repeat of such massacres.
The overnight attack in the area of Beni in North Kivu province was the latest in a series of mass slaughters blamed on the Muslim rebels known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
More than 250 people have been killed since October in attacks in the area, which follow a similar pattern -- the assailants arriving at night armed with machetes and slaughtering residents, including women and children.
Town chief Jean-Baptiste Kamabu, reached by telephone from the North Kivu capital Goma, said 36 people were killed in the overnight assault.
Two others were wounded and another two were abducted, he said.
Celestin Ngeleka, spokesman of a military operation against armed groups in the region, confirmed the death toll after troops carried out a search for victims.
"We deplore the carnage of 36 compatriots," he said.
The Ugandan rebels were driven out of their homeland in 1995, and have been blamed for pillaging villages and forcing locals to fight for them for years. They are also accused of funding themselves from the lucrative smuggling of wood.
In January, the Congolese army and soldiers of the United Nations mission in the country, MONUSCO, began an offensive against the group, which is the last major insurgency active in the region.
At the time, they thought they had severely weakened the rebels.
But the ADF has bounced back since the death in August from a heart attack of Congolese General Jean-Lucien Bahuma, a brilliant tactician credited for masterminding operations that led to the total defeat of another rebel movement known as the M23.
- 'Extremely shocked' -
An NGO based in Beni, Civil Society of North Kivu, called on the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers to increase their efforts to restore order to the region.
It said in a statement it was "extremely shocked by yet another massacre."
Residents have repeatedly denounced what they see as passivity from DR Congo troops and UN peacekeepers in the face of the massacres.
Even though the region is under curfew after dark, it appears that assailants had been mostly able to carry out the series of massacres without having to fight off MONUSCO or Congolese forces.
The army's spokesman Ngeleka however put the onus on the Congolese people to "work efficiently with" national troops.
A recent parliamentary report found that the Beni region suffers from a "confidence crisis between the security services, the political-administrative authorities and the population".
Several experts say that the ADF is not always hostile to the local population, and has even colluded with local military chiefs in various forms of trafficking, including of timber.
Beni is an important commercial centre and a stronghold of the Nande community, whose leaders rallied behind a militia supported by Uganda during the second Congo war from 1998 to 2003.
Martin Kobler, the German diplomat who heads MONUSCO, condemned the attack, and said in a statement released Sunday that it was of the utmost urgency to ramp up joint action with Congolese troops in order to prevent such attacks.
"Repeated joint FARDC-MONUSCO actions are a matter of top priority, and I call on all the partners to enhance cooperation in order to facilitate immediate interventions and preventive patrolling," he said.
Just last week, he had said that "we could reduce our presence" in the country next year if the government's authority was restored.
A delegation from UN headquarters in New York "has come to see how MONUSCO could reduce its forces, because the security situation in many places is getting better," Kobler said in an online chat session.
MONUSCO is one of the biggest peacekeeping missions in the world.