At least 70 people have been killed and thousands more fled their homes after days of fighting between rebels and government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, aid agencies said.
The clashes between the army and fighters from the APCLS armed group, which began last week in the town of Kitchanga, are just the latest violence to flare up in a region that has become a tinder box of ethnic tensions and battles over resources.
A hospital filled with wounded civilians was shelled over the weekend and homes have been torched, according to the French medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres.
“Local Red Cross workers are saying 70 people dead,” Cory Kik, MSF’s medical coordinator in the region, told Reuters news agency by telephone on Tuesday. “The situation is very serious … Seeing the burnt-out houses and the casualties, it’s shocking.”
Local Red Cross workers were not immediately reachable.
But one local official said that as many as 200 people were dead or missing after the clashes and that more than 300 homes had been destroyed.
Thousands seek refuge
By Tuesday, 10,000 people had gathered outside the UN base in Kitchanga seeking refuge from the fighting, according to the United Nations.
That is just part of an estimated 1.8 million people who have fled their homes in Congo’s restive east because of fighting.
A spokesman for the Congolese army, known as FARDC, said it had driven APCLS fighters out of Kitchanga on Monday.
Colonel Olivier Hamuli blamed the fighting, some of the bloodiest in recent months, on a personal feud between a FARDC commanding officer and an APCLS fighter, who until recently fought alongside government troops against the anti-Kinshasa M23 uprising.
“The army has retaken the town of Kitchanga, everything is under control,” Hamuli added.
The clashes underline the complex nature of the conflict in eastern Congo, where personal and local grievances fuel a wider battle between armed groups and the ill-disciplined army for control of land and the region’s rich mineral deposits.
Fighters from all sides, often high on marijuana and alcohol, are accused of raping and killing civilians, millions of whom have died in nearly two decades of conflict.