KINSHASA, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Congolese vigilantes ambushed marauding Ugandan rebels who launched a wave of attacks on villages at the weekend, but the rebels fought back and killed at least six of them, U.N.-backed radio reported on Tuesday.
Fighters from northern Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) carried out a series of raids near Congo's porous northern border with Sudan on Sunday, looting homes and burning buildings in a pattern similar to months of violence.
A group of young men attacked the rebels as they returned to their base, sparking a clash that left six Congolese civilians and one LRA fighter dead, U.N.-sponsored Radio Okapi said.
Father Benoit Kinalegu, a priest in the nearby town of Dungu, said survivors had said the death toll could be higher as villagers may have been killed in the LRA raid before the clash that killed the six vigilantes.
"The people have decided to organise themselves into little popular resistance groups," he told Reuters.
"It's really difficult to know exactly what happened there. The area is still very unstable," he said.
The LRA, led by the reclusive self-styled mystic Joseph Kony and notorious for abducting children to use as soldiers and sex slaves, has waged one of Africa's longest-running guerrilla wars against the government in neighbouring Uganda.
Though it has been driven out of Uganda, the LRA remains active in south Sudan, Central African Republic, and Congo, where the bulk of its force is believed to be based.
WAVE OF ATTACKS
LRA fighters killed at least 52 people, and abducted another 159 children and 10 adults during attacks in northern Congo last month, the country's U.N. peacekeeping mission, MONUC, said.
Congo's army has sent hundreds of soldiers to the area as part of operations meant to contain the rebels, but government forces have yet to engage them directly.
"MONUC is there. There are a lot of (Congolese soldiers). But since the beginning of these attacks, they haven't struck back. We are astonished," Kinalegu said.
MONUC is offering logistical assistance to the army, flying in troops and ammunition, and reinforcing defensive positions.
However, a MONUC military spokesman said the mission, which is already heavily deployed in violence-ravaged North Kivu province and against resurgent eastern militias, had no immediate plans to engage in direct operations against the LRA.
"We are doing the best we can with the means we have," MONUC spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich told Reuters.
"The decision was taken with the Congolese that they would lead the operation and we would give logistical support."
Two years of peace talks in south Sudan between the LRA and the Ugandan government collapsed in April when Kony, who is wanted for war crimes by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, failed to sign a final peace deal.
In June, Uganda, Congo and Sudan agreed to coordinate military efforts to stamp out the 20-year LRA rebellion, which worsens instability in a remote, mineral-rich region of Africa.
But experts doubt the capacity of Congo's ill-disciplined army to take on Kony's guerrillas on their own terrain.
Northern Uganda's civil war forced around 2 million people from their homes and destabilised neighbouring parts of oil-producing south Sudan and Congo's mineral-rich east.
(Editing by Alistair Thomson)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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