April 18, 2009 / 5:30 PM / in 9 years

Eight killed in eastern Congo attacks - witnesses

* Rwandan Hutu rebels attack overnight, witnesses say

* Eight killed, including five children

By Joe Bavier

KINSHASA, April 18 (Reuters) - Eight people were killed and hundreds of homes set ablaze in two overnight attacks in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo by Rwandan Hutu rebels, witnesses said on Saturday.

Residents of Luofu, a town 180 km (110 miles) north of the eastern town of Goma, said rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) set fire to more than 250 homes in what they believed was a reprisal attack.

“The FDLR came last night, lots and lots of them. They burned nearly the entire village. We counted around 255 houses burned and we counted seven people killed, including five children,” said Luofu village chief Emmanuel Murindu.

“The five children burned inside their house,” he told Reuters, adding that the police chief was seriously wounded.

The local FDLR commander told Reuters on Saturday the rebels were not in the area when the attack happened.

“We are far from Luofu. We are two days march from there,” said Colonel Sabin Gaheza.

Troops from neighbouring Rwanda launched an offensive in January against the FDLR rebels, who are seen as a root cause of 15 years of festering conflict in eastern of Congo.

But the Rwandan pullout a month later prompted fears the mainly Hutu rebels would step up reprisals against civilians and retake ground they lost during the offensive.

The operation was the most concerted pressure on the rebels for years, but thousands of gunmen remain in the bush, farming, mining and living off local villagers.

“I was preparing for bed when I heard the sound of gunfire. I lay down on the ground. I saw everything was red, the village was on fire,” said Gilbert Kalwahi, a priest living in Luofu.

Murindu said one person was shot dead and 45 homes burnt down in a second attack on the nearby village of Kasiki.

The United Nations is investigating numerous attacks on civilians blamed on the FDLR. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in February the rebels had massacred more than 100 civilians they accused of betraying them.

FDLR rebels had been camped near Luofu and Kasiki before the Rwandan offensive which started on Jan. 20, but then disappeared.

Witnesses said Congolese soldiers based nearby did not intervene to stop the attacks and that U.N. peacekeepers arrived on Saturday morning to assess the damage.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) was not immediately available for comment.

“We are trying to calm the population so they don’t run into the bush,” said Jean Bosco Masumbuko, another priest in Luofu. “We will stay in the church and pray. If they must come and kill us, they will kill us while we pray.” (Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Richard Meares)

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