KINSHASA, July 11 (Reuters) - Rwandan rebels burned 39 people alive when they torched a village in eastern Congo in what some locals said was punishment for supporting United Nations peacekeepers, a U.N. spokeswoman said on Monday.
U.N. forces have stepped up activity in the South Kivu province in the past week to try to improve security following a spate of attacks blamed on Rwandan rebels based in the lawless regions on Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern border.
"Thirty-nine civilians were burned alive after being locked in their huts, another seven are injured," said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Congo, referring to the attack that happened late on Saturday.
"The vast majority were women and children," she said by telephone from the eastern town of Bukavu. "Some people said it was in retaliation for a recent Congolese army attack on the rebels. Others said it was to discourage people from supporting an increasingly present U.N. mission," she said.
Members of the U.N. force that used helicopters to visit the village of Mtulumamba, some 40 km (25 miles) west of Bukavu, said huts had been reduced to cinders.
"Ashes remained where the 10 huts had stood, there were a couple of mass graves, where they had been buried," said a member of the team. "We were told the attackers locked the women and children in their huts while the men ran away."
A Congolese government official in Bukavu quoted survivors as saying the rebels taunted their victims for supporting U.N. peacekeepers, who have been cheered in parts of South Kivu during operations in the past week.
"During the attack, the bandits told them to call on their U.N. saviours," the government official told Reuters.
He had earlier quoted rebel sources as saying that 76 people had been killed, before the U.N. forces made their report.
U.N. peacekeepers, long accused of doing too little to fulfil their mandate to protect civilians in eastern Congo, have stepped up operations this year, particularly after nine Bangladeshi soldiers were killed in February.
The U.N. mission, known as MONUC, has mounted several operations to reinforce its presence in South Kivu in the past week, following a series of massacres blamed on Rwandan Hutu FDLR and Rasta rebels partly based in the province.
"It wouldn't surprise me if this was the FDLR. They have threatened to retaliate against civilians," a U.N. officer said.
Rwandan Hutu militias, many of whom fled after conducting the 1994 genocide in their homeland, have been active in eastern Congo for some time, prompting Rwanda to invade its huge neighbour twice to try to neutralise them.
The FDLR, the main group of Rwandan rebels in Congo, denied responsibility for the attack, blaming it on the more recently formed faction of Rwandan rebels known as the Rastas, although many observers say the two groups maintain close links.
"I spoke to my men on the ground and they confirmed that this attack was carried out by the Rastas," said Edmund Ngarambe, an FDLR spokesman in Bukavu.
Earlier this year, the FDLR vowed to lay down its weapons and return to Rwanda. But none of the fighters have left and the group has been accused of collaborating with Congolese gunmen in kidnapping and extortion rackets in South Kivu.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet