The defence minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo has appealed to panic-striken civilians in the country’s east not to form militias to protect themselves after a string of massacres by suspected Ugandan rebels.
Alexandre Luba Ntambo said on Tuesday that self-defence groups could further complicate the already fragile situation around the town of Beni, where as many as 120 people have been slaughtered in five weeks of night-time rebel raids.
His call came as the Congolese army, backed UN peacekeeping troops, fought rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) for a second day on the edge of the town.
Local officials believe the rebels were “organising themselves” for another attack on Beni when the soldiers came upon them.
As the fighting raged in the Virunga National Park around the town, families were burying the dead from the last attack when 11 people were killed – mostly hacked to death with machetes – in a raid on Saturday night.
President Joseph Kabila on Monday chaired a special meeting of the higher defence council in the capital Kinshasa to address the crisis, promising army and police reinforcements for the area.
He also called for more aid for the thousands of families who have fled their homes since the attacks began.
Civil society groups claim up to 120 men, women and children have been butchered by the rebels.
Ntambo said those behind the killings would be “brought to justice”.
The massacres led to violent street protests in October against the UN mission, which has a tough mandate to crack down on the many local and foreign armed groups active in the east.
ADF-NALU rebels have been pillaging the region from their hideouts in the Ruwenzori mountains that straddle the border with Uganda since being driven out of the country in 1995.
Local vigilante forces emerged in the 1990s as successive wars swept the vast, mineral-rich central African nation.
Late last week, Kabila himself visited Beni and vowed to defeat the ADF-NALU, but unimpressed residents on Sunday wrecked a roundabout adorned with a statue of the president.
Local authorities announced an overnight curfew, but citizens began to meet in several places to form self-defence groups, prompting Beni’s mayor, Bwanakawa Nyonyi, to warn them against taking a dangerous path. Security forces
fired in the air to disperse gatherings around bonfires.
Nyonyi said that angry residents had lynched a man on Friday taken for a foreign rebel, but when the case was investigated officials found that the victim was an innocent Congolese passing through the area.