GATUMBA, Burundi -- Attackers armed with machetes and automatic weapons raided a UN refugee camp in western Burundi, shooting and hacking to death at least 180 men, women, and children, UN officials said.
Burundian Hutu rebels claimed responsibility, insisting the camp for Congolese Tutsi refugees fleeing tribal fighting was a hideout for Burundi Army soldiers and Congolese tribal militiamen.
But most of the victims appeared to be women and children. Their charred remains lay among the cooking utensils and the smoldering remnants of their former homes yesterday.
The attack late Friday echoed the killing during the 1994 genocide in Burundi's neighbor Rwanda and raised fears of retaliatory violence that could undo peace efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The camp, 12 miles from the border with Congo, sheltered ethnic Tutsi refugees, known as the Banyamulenge, who fled fighting in Congo's troubled border province of South Kivu, UN officials visiting the camp after the attack said.
"People were sleeping when the attack happened," said Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman of the UN mission in Congo. "People were killed as they tried to escape."
Isabelle Abric, spokeswoman for the UN mission in Burundi, said 159 people were killed on the spot and 101 others were wounded in the attack in Gatumba. At least 30 of the wounded died later in the hospital, she said.
Leaflets distributed before the raid warned refugees to leave the camp or face attacks by a coalition of Burundian, Rwandan, and Congolese factions seeking "to fight the Tutsi colonization in the region," survivors said.
The attackers spoke languages and dialects from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi and were believed to have crossed into Burundi from Congo, said witnesses who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
Later yesterday, Burundian officials and aid workers moved the refugees to a nearby school where they will be protected by the army, said Louis Niyonzima, the local mayor.
A spokesman of the UN refugee agency said the attackers raided a nearby army camp before attacking the refugees.
"These guys were armed with grenades, machetes, and automatic weapons. While the attack was going on they were beating drums," said Fernando del Mundo, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
Pasteur Habimana, spokesman for the National Liberation Forces, justified the attack, saying Burundian soldiers were hiding in the camp, located about half a mile from an army position.
"We were also attacked by armed Banyamulenge militiamen who lived in this camp," he said. "The camp was a genuine Banyamulenge militiamen headquarters."
The National Liberation Forces is the last main rebel movement fighting the government in Burundi's 10-year-old civil war, which has killed some 260,000 people.
War broke out in 1993, when Hutus took up arms after Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the country's first democratically elected president, a Hutu. Burundi's Tutsi minority has run the country for all but a few months since independence in 1962.
Colonel Adolphe Manirakiza, an army spokesman, denied rebel claims that Burundian troops fled into the camp.
President Domitien Ndayizeye of Burundi described the massacre as "a shame" and asked Congo to assist in investigations.
"It is Burundi which has been attacked. The attackers killed innocent refugees who sought refuge in Burundi," Ndayizeye said. The rebels "declared that they attacked a military camp . . . but I saw no soldier's body except those of young children, women, and old persons."
The attack occurred one day after Congo's vice president, Azarias Ruberwa, visited the camp to encourage the refugees to return home.