KINSHASA, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Some 45 civilians were massacred in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo but Congolese troops sent to the area killed four of the Rwandan rebels thought to have been responsible, the Congolese army said on Thursday.
The civilian killings took place on Monday and Tuesday in remote villages in the territory of Shabunda in South Kivu province, an area still troubled by armed groups more than eight years after the end of a 1998-2003 war.
"Our sources are now saying 45 people dead, mainly women and children, one pregnant woman was eviscerated and the head of a village was decapitated," Colonel Sylvain Ekenge, an army spokesman, said by telephone.
Initial reports had said there were 26 dead and 13 injured in the raids, the worst in many months. Ekenge said the figure could rise again.
Congolese armed forces sent to the area, one of the hardest in the region to reach, clashed with the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group with bases in Congo, and killed four of them, Ekenge said.
Bringing real peace in the east remains one of the biggest challenges to President Joseph Kabila, re-elected for a new term in a November vote which opponents said was riddled with irregularities.
The villages were targeted because locals were thought to have been supporting a rival militia, according to Ekenge.
The FDLR, which says it is trying to overthrow the government in neighbouring Rwanda, is the largest rebel group left in eastern Congo and has been responsible for widespread atrocities including mass rapes and killings.
Armed groups still operate in eastern Congo despite the presence more than 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers and ongoing military operations.
About 10 people were reported killed in South Kivu in October, and as many as 170 women were raped in a series of rebel attacks in June.
Many of the rebels receive their weapons and ammunition from Congolese troops, either through illegal arms trading or by capturing it on the battlefield, a U.N. report said last week. (Reporting by Jonny Hogg and Crispin Kyalangalilwa; Editing by Mark John)