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U.N. lowers Congo massacre toll

African leaders meet amid charges of troop movements

A woman from the Drodro hospital visits a mass grave in the village after the April 3 killings.
A woman from the Drodro hospital visits a mass grave in the village after the April 3 killings.

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NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) -- A U.N. official said investigators believed up to 350 people were massacred by tribal militias in Congo last week, far fewer than the nearly 1,000 deaths initially reported by local witnesses.

"As far as our team has been able to verify, they have been able to determine 150 to 350 dead," Behrooz Sadry, a senior official with the U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC), told Africa Journal, a Reuters Television program.

Interviewed late Tuesday, Sadry said U.N. teams were still investigating reports from local witnesses that the true death toll was 966 civilians.

The Congolese government said the perpetrators should be put on trial, echoing a call by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Tribal militia armed with machetes and guns raided Drodro and 14 neighboring villages in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo on April 3, according to U.N. officials.

Most of those shot or hacked to death were women, children or old men. Dozens of survivors were left with deep wounds, but most of the younger men in the villages managed to flee the attacks.

U.N. investigators said they saw some 20 mass graves after the raids near Ituri province's capital Bunia, about 50 miles from the border with Uganda.

"We haven't been able to count the bodies and we have not been able to dig up the mass graves," MONUC spokesman Hamadoun Toure told reporters in Kinshasa Wednesday.

"A massacre is still a massacre," he said when asked about the revised death toll.

The Ugandan army has put the number of dead at between 350 and 400. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

Human rights groups say thousands of people have been killed in northeastern Congo since 1999 in ethnic fighting between tribes allied to the armies of Rwanda and Uganda.

Drodro's population is made up mainly of Hema, who have been pitted against the Lendu in a conflict that has drawn in factions from the wider war.

Survivors said last week's attackers spoke Lendu and were backed by soldiers in uniform. Rights groups have accused Ugandan troops of fueling ethnic tensions in the area, but Uganda's army has denied any involvement in the attack.

The Congolese government has left the investigation to the United Nations.

Africa summit tries to stop killing

African leaders met Wednesday to try to halt a new wave of ethnic killing in the Congo's devastating and complex war amid fresh allegations of troop movements in the region.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who hosted the summit in Cape Town, has spearheaded efforts to get countries neighboring the Democratic Republic of Congo to withdraw their armies from its territory and make a peace plan work.

But as leaders converged in Cape Town, Uganda's army said Rwandan troops had returned to Congo and were advancing toward Ugandan positions in Ituri province, where tribal conflict led to ethnic massacres last week.

"They are heading toward Ituri and we have advised them against it," army spokesman Maj. Shaban Bantariza told Reuters in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

Rwanda's army, which has threatened to send troops back into Congo unless Uganda withdraws, retorted that it had not yet done so.

"They [Ugandans] want to incriminate us into the massacres being performed in Ituri. Uganda knows very well that we are not yet in Congo. This talk is meant to legitimize their stay in the DRC," Rwandan army spokesman Gill Rutamemara said in Kigali.

Under an agreement with Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Uganda has promised to withdraw troops from Congo by April 24. Army officers have said they will keep to that date, even though hundreds more troops flew in after last week's killings.

Saber-rattling by Rwanda and Uganda, whose leaders were both in Cape Town for the summit, has kindled fears of an open battle between their two armies on Congolese soil, as has happened before with devastating consequences for civilians.

Kabila and Tanzania's Benjamin Mkapa were at the summit.

Most foreign troops have left Congo and the internal warring factions signed up last week to an interim administration. But new bloodshed in the east threatens to derail peace efforts.

"It is a situation which has to stop. The meeting will find ways to halt the war and restore territorial integrity," Mbeki's spokesman Bheki Khumalo said as the summit began.

Allegations that an ethnic Lendu militia carried out the Ituri massacre have added to fears of yet another cycle of violence.

"The massacre ... raises all the old demons of the past, where people kill each other with machetes on an ethnic basis," said one Western diplomat. "Clearly there are two objectives: to agree terms for a Ugandan withdrawal and to negotiate guarantees for the security of the civilian population of Ituri."

Uganda says Rwandans heading toward Ituri base

Bantariza, the Ugandan army spokesman, said Rwandan soldiers had marched past Kanyabayonga, about 40 km (24 miles) as the crow flies from the Rwandan border in Congo's Kivu province. The town is 140 km north of Goma.

He said they were heading for Lubero, about 300 km (180 miles) south of Uganda's base at Bunia.

U.N. spokeswoman Patricia Tome said the organization was not aware of any Rwandan troops near Ituri.

Meanwhile, the Kinshasa-allied RCD-ML group said they were fighting troops from the rebel RCD-Goma, backed by Rwandan soldiers, near the town of Mbingi, south of Lubero, on Wednesday.

"Rwandan troops are still attacking us. Fighting is still going on," said RCD-ML commander Jean Louis Kyaviro.

A U.N. official said they had not received reports of fighting in the area since March 29, when the U.N. confirmed that RCD-Goma had captured two towns south of Lubero from the RCD-ML.

Ituri has been the scene of some of the worst atrocities in Congo's civil war, which started in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda backed an eastern rebellion against their former ally Laurent Kabila, Joseph's slain father, but the rebels they supported split into rival factions.

Congo's war is estimated to have killed more than three million people and is intertwined with other conflicts in the region, including those in Burundi and Rwanda.

Under a peace deal signed last July with the Kinshasa government, Rwanda agreed to withdraw its troops in return for the disarmament of Hutu militiamen involved in Rwanda's 1994 genocide who, according to Rwanda, are still roving around Congo.

With a host of rebel groups acting as proxy forces, mineral-rich eastern Congo has become a minefield of shifting front lines, changing loyalties and systematic looting, jeopardizing efforts to install power-sharing institutions.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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