At least 30 Burundian refugees were killed in clashes with Congolese security forces over plans to send some home, a Reuters witness and local activists said.
Police and soldiers opened fire as the refugees protested over the plan in Kamanyola in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, activists told Reuters.
DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende denied those killed were refugees, saying the clashes broke out when assailants from an unidentified armed group attacked an office belonging to the national intelligence agency.
Five soldiers and 20 attackers were killed in the fighting, Mende said.
More than 400,000 refugees fled Burundi – including 40,000 to neighbouring Congo – since violence erupted in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would seek a third term in office, a move his opponents called unconstitutional.
Wendo Joel, an activist from a Congolese pro-democracy and human rights group, said the refugees seized a weapon and killed a soldier as they tried to free some arrested compatriots.
“The soldiers first fired in the air but there were many refugees,” Joel told Reuters. “I counted 32 bodies. There are also about 100 wounded.”
Reuters TV footage showed more than 30 bodies covered by sheets on the roadside in Kamanyola, with more wounded lying in the street
A UN spokeswoman confirmed at least 18 Burundian asylum seekers were killed but said the toll was likely to rise. Others took shelter at the UN peacekeeping mission’s nearby base, she added.
According to a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, more than 2,000 Burundian refugees live in Kamanyola with host families.
In a statement, Burundi’s main opposition grouping, CNARED, accused Burundi army troops and members of the ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth group Imbonerakure of carrying out the killings with the Congolese army.
Burundian officials could not be immediately reached for comment, with Burundi foreign minister Alain Aime Nyamitwe writing on Twitter: “My heart sinks as I learn of the shootings in Eastern #DRC.”
“Clarifications are needed on the shootings & circumstances around,” he added.
Violence in Burundi has killed over 700 people and a UN commission said there were reasonable grounds to believe authorities committed crimes against humanity. The government rejected the commission’s findings as “propaganda”.