KIWANJA, Congo, Nov 6 (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers found the bodies of a dozen shot civilians on Thursday in an eastern Congo village occupied by Tutsi rebels who have seized fresh territory in North Kivu province, witnesses and a U.N. spokesman said.
A stench of death hung over Kiwanja when journalists and U.N. troops entered the village, where fighters loyal to rebel General Laurent Nkunda drove out pro-government Mai-Mai militia on Wednesday, sending its inhabitants fleeing in panic.
At least a dozen bodies of adult males, five in one house alone, were visible among the mud-walled and tin-roofed homes, a few of them burned, apparently hit by rockets or grenades.
There was nothing, neither uniforms nor weapons, to indicate the dead had been fighters. Some wore work overalls.
A military spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) said U.N. troops and human rights experts were investigating reports that Nkunda's fighters killed civilians after the recent fighting.
The U.N. has its largest peacekeeping force -- 17,000 strong -- in Congo. But commanders say they cannot be everywhere in a vast, violent country the size of Western Europe which despite huge mineral wealth has only 600 km (375 miles) of paved roads.
Kiwanja residents said Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels had carried out the killings after taking control of the village in the latest flare-up of a conflict that traces its origins to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
"They knocked on the doors, when the people opened, they killed them with their guns," said Simo Bramporiki, aged around 60, who said his wife and child were killed last night.
Nkunda denied his men had killed civilians.
"It was against the Mai-Mai (militia) and many were in civilian dress," he told Reuters by telephone.
The U.N. military spokesman, Lt-Col Jean-Paul Dietrich, said: "Even if they were (Mai-Mai) fighters and surrendered, and were then killed, that would be a criminal act".
Dietrich told Reuters Nkunda's rebel forces had also occupied other villages about 80 km (50 miles) north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma. Nkunda advanced to the outskirts of Goma last week, before declaring a ceasefire.
"They have taken Nyanzale and Kikuku, therefore breaking their own declared ceasefire. Now it's clear they are trying to have a territory completely under their control," Dietrich said.
Nkunda said his forces were maintaining the ceasefire.
As the United Nations and the African Union prepared a summit of Great Lakes leaders in Nairobi on Friday to try to end the east Congo conflict, aid agencies were scrambling to provide food and medical care to 200,000 refugees crammed into camps around and just north of Goma.
But relief workers say that many more out of over 1 million displaced civilians in North Kivu are out of reach of help, either cut off by fighting, hiding in the bush or isolated in zones controlled by rebel and militia forces.
BODIES IN HOUSE
In Kiwanja, one distraught woman, crying hysterically, asked journalists to "come and see the five dead bodies in my house". One was that of her husband. Two more bodies lay outside.
CNDP rebel fighters boasted to journalists that they had killed many Mai-Mai militiamen.
Journalists asked the U.N. peacekeepers, who have a base nearby, why they had not intervened. They did not reply.
The latest fighting around Rutshuru has worsened a humanitarian situation already described as "catastrophic" by aid agencies in a country where more than 5 million people have died in a decade from conflict, hunger and disease.
"We are only reaching a certain number of people and not the greater number of displaced people," David Nthengwe, spokesman in east Congo for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters.
"Security is our major constraint here ... it is not possible for us to access combat zones," he added.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who plans to meet the presidents of Congo and Rwanda at Friday's summit in Nairobi, has asked the Security Council to approve a "surge" of 3,000 extra troops for the U.N. Congo mission.
But with contributor governments distracted and squeezed by the global financial crisis, U.N. officials say mustering the reinforcements for MONUC could take weeks, maybe months.
Ban has said he will urge Congolese President Joseph Kabila to speak with Nkunda. Kabila's government has been refusing to negotiate with the rebels, who say they will attack Goma if there are no talks.
Ban and Kabila will also meet Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of supporting feuding rebel and militia groups in east Congo.
Nkunda says his 4-year-old revolt aims to defend Congolese Tutsis and accuses Kabila's army of backing Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo who took part in Rwanda's genocide. Congo has accused Tutsi-led Rwanda of backing Nkunda, which Kigali denies.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa and Hereward Holland in Goma; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Alistair Thomson and Janet Lawrence)
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