Militiamen killed about 20 people during an attack on displaced civilians in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the government said on Monday.
Fighters from the CODECO militia raided the village of Drodro on Sunday night, Jules Ngongo, a spokesperson for Ituri’s military government, told Reuters.
He said they killed 12 civilians, six of them children. Patrick Muyaya, the spokesperson for the national government, later said on Twitter that the death toll stood at around 20.
Repeated attacks by CODECO have killed hundreds of civilians in Ituri province’s Djugu territory since 2017 and forced thousands to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
CODECO’s fighters are drawn mainly from the Lendu farming community, which has long been in conflict with Hema herders.
“Their objective was to attack the population that was displaced in Drodro,” Ngongo said.
Others said the death toll was higher.
Ngabu Lidja Chrysante, a priest and coordinator for the Catholic charity Caritas in Ituri, said his colleagues on the ground had seen the bodies of 35 people killed in the attack, which also targeted the local church.
Kivu Security Tracker, which maps violence in Congo, said it had confirmed 29 deaths. It had earlier reported 107 deaths but said that information turned out to be erroneous.
Mathias Gilman, the spokesperson for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, said at least 16 000 people fleeing the attacks had taken shelter at a nearby site protected by peacekeepers.
CODECO spokesperson Patrick Basa denied the group had killed civilians. He told Reuters its fighters had clashed in Drodro with a Hema militia but said the civilians had already fled the area.
Conflict between Lendu and Hema from 1999 to 2007 resulted in an estimated 50 000 deaths in one of the bloodiest chapters of a civil war in eastern Congo.
Ituri and neighbouring North Kivu province have been run by military officers since May when the government declared a state of siege in response to rampant violence, but the killings have not shown any sign of abating since then.