December clashes in west DR Congo killed almost 900: UN

Kinshasa (AFP) –


At least 890 people were killed during three days of inter-communal clashes in western Democratic Republic of Congo last month, the United Nations said Wednesday.

"It is crucial that this shocking violence be promptly, thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators be brought to justice," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

The UN rights office said it had been informed by "credible sources" that the people were killed between December 16 and 18 in four villages in the Yumbi territory, Mai-Ndombe province, about 300 kilometres (180 miles) north of Kinshasa.

The statement said that at least 82 people were also reportedly injured in "what appear to have been clashes between the Banunu and Batende communities", but that the final casualty toll was expected to be higher.

In Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende could not confirm the UN death toll, telling AFP: "We have around 100 dead according to the latest estimates that were presented to the government."

That level of violence prompted a request to postpone regional voting in the December 30 presidential election -- though the clashes were unrelated to the polls.

- Longstanding rivalry -

The violence appears to have been rooted in a longstanding rivalry between the Banunu and Batende, sparked when Banunu tribespeople buried a traditional chief on Batende land on the night of December 13.

Around 465 houses and building were then burned down or pillaged, including two primary schools, a health centre, a market and the office of the national elections commission, the UN rights office said.

The UN refugee agency said earlier this month that 16,000 people had fled from the villages into the neighbouring Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville.

That agency said the violence was not linked to recent elections in the DRC, but had instead been caused by the resurgence of an old rivalry between the Banunu and Batende communities.

In 2009, ethnic clashes in the region forced 130,000 people to seek shelter in Congo -- which now hosts 60,000 refugees, mainly from the DRC, the Central African Republic and Rwanda.

The rights office said Wednesday that it had launched an investigation into the reports of violence.

National judicial authorities are also conducting a probe, it said.

Investigating the claims "is essential to ensure justice for the victims of these horrific attacks, but also to prevent new episodes of intercommunal strife, and to address the anger and feelings of gross injustice that may otherwise lead to repeated cycles of violence between communities," Bachelet said.

The UN rights chief said her office could provide advice and support "in the conduct of investigations, as well as in efforts to prevent the recurrence of such violence, and to work towards justice and reconciliation."