November 12, 2009 / 4:30 PM / 11 years ago

Land dispute behind new Congo killings: UN report

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese army units killed dozens of civilians earlier this year as part of a longstanding ethnic dispute over land, victims of the assaults were cited as saying in a U.N. report seen by Reuters on Thursday.

Congolese soldiers patrol the town of Rutshuru in eastern Congo, January 28, 2009. REUTERS/Alissa Everett

The killings have led to calls on the United Nations to suspend its backing for all Congolese army operations against Rwandan rebels in the east, but so far it has only frozen support for those units implicated in the attacks.

According to the internal U.N. investigation, survivors said the attacks were an attempt by Tutsi ex-rebel fighters recently integrated into the army to force their victims, most of whom came from the local Hunde ethnic group, off their land.

“All interlocutors longstanding land conflicts in the area and see these killings as an attempt to cause the population to flee and free the land,” the report read.

MONUC believes at least 62 villagers were killed between May and September and the U.N. report said at least 55 more also likely died in the attacks in and around Lukweti village in North Kivu province.

Those responsible for the attacks, the report said, were members of the 213th brigade, composed mainly of former members of a Tutsi-dominated Congolese rebel movement known as the CNDP, integrated into the army under a January peace deal.

The fertile fields and pastures around Lukweti have been the scene of ethnic tensions between Hundes on one side and Hutus and Tutsis on the other since the early 1990s.

The current military operation in Congo’s volatile eastern border provinces of North and South Kivu is part of an agreement aimed at improving relations between Congo and Rwanda, enemies during a 1998-2003 war.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said earlier this month that at least 270 civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed by soldiers in the area around Lukweti during the period cited by the U.N.

Some, the rights group said, were hacked to death with machetes, beheaded, or burned alive in their homes.

Despite increasing criticism of its role in the offensive, MONUC argues that pulling out of the operations would hinder its ability to protect civilians.

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