The UN on Tuesday criticised authorities in southwestern Democratic Republic of Congo for failing to prevent a massacre of hundreds of people last December, despite clear signs of rising tensions.
The attacks could amount to crimes against humanity, the UN human rights office said, as it presented the findings of an investigation into intercommunal violence in four locations in Yumbi territory between December 16 and 18.
“It is crucial to ensure that the perpetrators of these terrible crimes are punished,” UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
The UN Joint Human Rights Office in DRC deployed investigators after receiving “credible reports” that nearly 900 people had been killed in clashes between the Banunu and Batende communities.
Its team was able to independently verify that at least 535 men, women and children had been killed and 111 others injured in Yumbi town, Bongende village and Nkolo II village.
But investigators were unable to reach a fourth location, Camp Nbanzi, where attacks had also been reported, and the rights office warned that the true number of casualties was likely higher.
More than 50 mass graves have been identified in the area, but spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters that many bodies were believed to have been thrown in the Congo River.
It had so far been impossible to confirm the number of people still missing, she added, as some 19,000 people had been displaced by the violence, including 16,000 who fled to the neighbouring Republic of Congo.
The investigators found that the attacks, triggered by a dispute over the burial of a Banunu customary chief, were “strikingly similar” in each location.
– ‘Extreme violence’ –
The violence had been facilitated by the absence of state action to prevent it, despite “clear signs of rising tensions and increased risk of violence”, the UN said.
It decried the failure to reinforce security before the attacks and the withdrawal of police in the area prior to the massacre.
“Provincial authorities appear to have failed in their responsibility to protect the population,” the report said.
They were “characterised by extreme violence and speed, leaving little time for people to escape,” Shamdasani said, adding that Batende villagers equipped with firearms, machetes, bows and arrows and gasoline had targeted Banunu villagers.
The report detailed horrific violence, including a two-year-old reportedly thrown into a septic tank, and a woman reportedly raped after her three-year-old child had been decapitated and husband killed.
Some victims were killed as they tried to cross the Congo River while others were burnt alive in their homes, the investigators were told.
In some cases, the bodies of the victims were mutilated, with their heads, limbs and genitals cut off.
“The similarity in the way the attacks were carried out indicated prior consultation and organisation,” the report said. Some chiefs in Batenda-majority villages were said to have taken part in planning the attacks, it added.
The report also warned of the high risk of renewed violence, pointing to ongoing tensions between the two communities, which “could give rise to new waves of violence at any time.”
Bachelet stressed the need for accountability and urged the government “to initiate a process of truth and reconciliation” between the communities.
This she said was “essential in addressing feelings of intercommunal conflict and preventing further violence.”