|The rebel National Congress for the Defense of the People leader General Laurent Nkunda posed for a portrait yesterday in Tebero, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)|
Villagers found slain in Congo
Rebels accused, but say dead were militia
KIWANJA, Democratic Republic of Congo - Villagers who fled fighting in this rebel-held town trickled home yesterday to find the bodies of more than a dozen men in civilian clothes in and around mud huts - and accused rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's forces of the slayings.
Nkunda's men wrested control of Kiwanja Wednesday following heavy fighting with a pro-government militia called Mai Mai, one of many signs that the conflict is spreading in eastern Congo and a fragile cease-fire is close to unraveling.
The villagers said rebels had killed unarmed civilians suspected of supporting the Mai Mai, but the rebels said the dead were militia fighters who had been armed.
A UN official said Kiwanja was in fact subjected to two rounds of terror: First the Mai Mai arrived and killed those they accused of supporting Nkunda's rebels, then Nkunda's rebels stormed in, killing men they charged were loyal to the Mai Mai.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
Human Rights Watch said UN peacekeepers nearby had been unable to protect the villagers. It said at least 20 people were killed and another 33 wounded during the battle for the town.
"The UN should not leave these defenseless people to be slaughtered by fighters on both sides," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior Africa researcher for the rights group.
North of Kiwanja, rebels captured an army base in Nyanzale yesterday after fighting with the army, the UN said. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cease-fire and urged the armed groups involved to find a political solution.
Ban was flying to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to attend an African Union summit todayaimed at bringing peace to the region. Congo President Joseph Kabila is expected, along with Rwanda President Paul Kagame, who wields strong influence over rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's Tutsi-led rebels.
Dozens of militia groups operate in the remote terraced valleys and hills of eastern Congo, a lawless region that the government and a 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission have struggled to bring under control for years.
Among the armed groups are the Mai Mai and ethnic Hutu insurgents from Rwanda who fled to Congo after helping carry out Rwanda's 1994 bloody genocide.
In Kiwanja yesterday, an AP reporter was led by frightened, whispering residents to huts where she counted the bodies of 16 people - covered with blankets or sheets - in one small part of Kiwanja. All but two were men, the residents said. None appeared armed.
Chorade Muhimdo, 38, said residents who stayed in Kiwanja despite rebel orders to leave were inside their homes when rebels "came and shot them."
"There's no reason," he said. "Once they think you are Mai Mai, they have to kill you."
One woman, 47-year-old Ajeni Niragasigwa, said rebels killed her 17-year-old son while he was trying to cross a rebel checkpoint.
"They came to kill the people," she said, tears streaming down her face. "They did not come to protect."
She held her cheeks in her hands, looked to the skies and wailed: "Congo!"
Rebel Captain John Imani said about 60 people had been killed in the fighting, mostly Mai Mai. "Whoever is moving with a gun, he's an enemy," Imani said.
Nkunda's spokesman, Bertrand Bisimwa, said armed government troops and allied Mai Mai militia had infiltrated Kiwanja in civilian clothes and began killing villagers who supported the rebels.
Nkunda defected from the army in 2004, saying he needed to protect his tiny Tutsi minority from Rwandan Hutu militias. He has since expanded his mission to "liberating" Congo from an allegedly corrupt government.
Nkunda told The Associated Press yesterday that his mission justifies the suffering of some 250,000 forced from their homes since he launched an offensive Aug. 28. He also suggested that Congo's army was being bolstered by foreign militias from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.
Congo's government has charged Nkunda with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture, and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.