A Congolese government official, on Monday, quoted rebels as putting the death toll at 76 from the attack, saying it was carried out on Saturday to punish villagers for supporting UN troops seeking to expand their presence in the country's South Kivu province. About 50 people were said to be injured in the attack.

   

The UN mission in Democratic Republic of Congo said it had sent peacekeeping forces by helicopter to verify reports of the killings in the village of Mtulumamba, which lies outside the town of Bukavu in lawless South Kivu.

   

Freddy Mantchombe, the head of Congo section of the International Medical Corps charity, said local people told his staff that houses had been torched during the raid by rebels from neighbouring Rwanda based in eastern Congo.

   

"Our teams were in the area yesterday and they were told by the district health authorities that 39 houses were burned down, 26 people were killed and another four are seriously injured," Mantchombe told Reuters by telephone from Bukavu.

 

Disputed claim   

The attack was to discourage the
locals from backing the UN forces

 

The government official in Bukavu, who declined to be named, quoted survivors as saying Rwandan rebels had carried out the attack to discourage locals from supporting UN forces.

   

"During the attack, the bandits told them to call on their UN saviours," he told Reuters by telephone.

   

The main group of Rwandan rebels in Congo, the FDLR, denied responsibility for the attack, blaming it on a more recently formed faction of Rwandan rebels known as the Rastas, although many observers say the two groups maintain close links.

   

"This is a lie. I spoke to my men on the ground and they confirmed that this attack was carried out by the Rastas," said Edmund Ngarambe, an FDLR spokesman in Bukavu.

   

UN relief workers quoted the Congolese Red Cross as breaking down the death toll into 22 "young" women, three "older" women and one four-year-old boy.

 

Massacres

 

Rwandan Hutu militias, many of whom fled after conducting the 1994 genocide in their homeland, have long been active in eastern Congo, prompting Rwanda to invade its huge neighbour twice to try to neutralise them.

   

Young mothers were said to be
burned alive in their huts

UN peacekeepers, long accused of doing too little to fulfil their mandate to protect civilians in eastern Congo, have stepped up operations this year, particularly after nine Bangladeshi soldiers were killed in February.

   

The UN mission, known as MONUC, has mounted several operations to reinforce its presence in South Kivu in the past week, following a series of massacres blamed on Rwandan Hutu FDLR and Rasta rebels partly based in the province.

   

"Military and civilian personnel in MONUC have been informed by numerous sources that there was a killing of about 30 people at Mtulumamba, 40 km west of Bukavu," said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, MONUC spokeswoman in Bukavu.

 

"The civilian population is blaming the Rwandan Hutu rebels for this."

   

Earlier this year, the FDLR had vowed to lay down its weapons and return to Rwanda. But none of the fighters has left and the group has been accused of collaborating with Congolese gunmen in kidnapping and extortion rackets in South Kivu