KINSHASA, Congo — Community leaders in eastern Congo are condemning the military and United Nations peacekeepers for not doing more to stop the bloodshed when at least 220 people were killed earlier this month amid clashes between armed groups.
Local authorities have said a coalition of fighters loyal to an ex-Congolese army colonel set fire to villages and stole cattle on their way to the town of Kipupu in South Kivu province.
Fighting then raged there with Mai Mai militia members, with civilians caught in the middle. Community leaders initially said 43 people died in the July 16 attack, but they have revised that figure to more than 200.
"We demand that the Congolese state work to strengthen security measures for civilians without discriminating, and work to prevent and halt these heinous massacres," said a statement released Sunday by community leaders from the Babembe, Bafuliru, Bavira and Banyindu ethnic groups.
They say the attack was carried out by ethnic Ngumino and Twigwaneho militias loyal to Michel Rukunda, a former colonel who defected from the military in January.
Congo's military and the U.N. peacekeeping mission have not confirmed those tolls. The U.N. says it has sent a team to the town to investigate.
Capt. Dieudonné Kasereka, a military spokesman for operations in South Kivu, has said Congo's army is doing everything possible to protect civilians. While there were no soldiers in Kipupu at the time of the attack, troops have since deployed nearby.
Critics, though, say there were growing signs that a massacre was imminent.
People who had fled the area recently warned a U.N. assessment mission that armed fighters believed to be Twigwaneho militants were stepping up their presence in the area, according to U.N.-backed Radio Okapi.
The station published a report on July 3 saying civilians who had fled feared those fighters intended to attack Kipupu because it was a perceived Mai-Mai militia stronghold.
Eastern Congo has been wracked by violence from a myriad of armed groups for more than a quarter-century. While much of it has been linked to gaining control of the region's vast mineral wealth, other tensions have stemmed from long-standing inter-communal disputes.
Tensions have been mounting since late last year in the highlands region of South Kivu over a plan to formalize a rural district known as Minembwe. A dispute over control of the area has led to waves of violence between ethnic militias.