At least 161 people were killed in a Democratic Republic of Congo province in the past week, local officials said, in an apparent resurgence of ethnic clashes between farming and herding communities.
A series of attacks in Ituri mostly targeted Hema herders, long in conflict with Lendu farmers over grazing rights and political representation, although the exact identity of the assailants is murky.
Open conflict between Hema and Lendu from 1999-2007 resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths in one of the bloodiest chapters of a civil war in eastern Congo that left millions dead from conflict, hunger and disease.
Tit-for-tat attacks between the two groups in late 2017 and early 2018 killed hundreds and forced thousands more to flee their homes, but a tenuous calm took hold until this month.
Pascal Kakoraki Baguma, a national lawmaker from Ituri, said the latest violence was sparked by the killing of four Lendu businesspeople.
“Members of the Lendu community believe these assassinations were the work of the Hema,” Kakoraki said. “This is why they launched attacks on Hema villages.”
“Sources affirm 161 bodies have been found so far. Yhe death toll goes beyond bodies recovered as there were other massacres of civilians and police officers,” he said.
Jean Bosco Lalo, president of civil society organisations in Ituri, said 200 bodies were found since last week in predominantly Hema villages, including the 161 mentioned by Kakoraki. Lalo said the toll would rise once his teams gained access to other villages where killings were reported.
Ituri Governor Jean Bamanisa said provincial authorities were working to establish the exact death toll and declined to say who was responsible.
He said the assailants’ tactics were to “empty the villages, burn them and pursue those who fled to the surrounding areas with bladed weapons”.
Congo President Felix Tshisekedi is trying to restore stability to the country’s eastern borderlands, a tinderbox of conflict among armed groups over ethnicity, natural resources and political power.
Several rebel leaders surrendered or were captured during his first months in office, but armed violence has persisted, particularly in North Kivu province, south of Ituri, the epicentre of a 10-month Ebola outbreak.