Demonstrators in volatile region say local and international forces are failing to keep them safe from deadly attacks.
At least 19 people were killed in a new rebel attack in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as anger grows against United Nations peacekeepers and security forces for failing to protect civilians.
The latest attack on Wednesday took place after fighters belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group went into a village near Oicha, about 30km (14 miles) from Beni town.
Donat Kibwana, the administrator of Beni territory, said many family members of the victims were afraid to return to the scene for fear of being attacked, but an initial search found 19 people dead.
“This assessment remains provisional as the search continues,” Kibwana said. “We have reinforced the military presence in the territory of Beni, but also the army has pursued the rebels. We call on the population to remain calm.”
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from Goma, said: “We are also hearing from officials the bodies were badly mutilated, some had been decapitated as well.”
The attack came days after the ADF was blamed for killing eight Beni residents on Sunday, prompting protesters to take to the streets.
Demonstrations against UN peacekeepers in northeast DRC spread from Beni to other towns in the region.
Information reaching us -15 pple have been killed -reportedly by ADF rebels in Oicha which is in Beni region. Some have been decapitated. Protests have been going on in Beni over insecurity & failure of UN mission (monusco) and government forces to protect civilians.
— Catherine Wambua- Soi (@C_SOI) November 27, 2019
As frustration boiled over, the UN mission in the DRC told Al Jazeera there is evidence that a UN soldier killed a young protester on Tuesday in Beni where angry locals have been demonstrating against the peacekeeping force – accusing the MONUSCO force of failing to protect civilians from rebel attacks.
“We established that an incident did happen, that there was indeed a shoot-out and one of our peacekeepers shot the protester throwing a Molotov cocktail,” Francois Grignon, deputy special representative at MONUSCO, said from Beni, adding that the UN was checking whether the rules of engagement were followed appropriately.
“We are still in the process of verifying all the facts and fact-checking the reports that we have received but this is indeed the circumstances that we understand took place yesterday,” said Grignon.
“Very, very strict orders have been given to the peacekeepers, to all our troops, not to use lethal weapons against protesters they are facing – and they were facing yesterday a very difficult situation.”
Calls for restraint
Separately on Wednesday, a student was injured and 10 other people arrested as Congolese police broke up a demonstration outside the university in Goma, one of two cities in the province of North Kivu where anger has boiled over.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that it treated more than 30 people in and around Beni area amid “a deterioration in the humanitarian situation”.
“We are calling on everyone involved to exercise restraint. Civilians should not be targeted, and humanitarian organisations, healthcare facilities, and healthcare personnel should be allowed to do their work,” said Nour Khadam, head of ICRC’s office in Beni.
Dozens of civilians in and around Beni have been killed by the ADF since the army launched an offensive against it on October 30.
The mounting toll has led people to take to the streets, accusing the authorities and MONUSCO of inaction.
On Monday, a crowd stormed one of the two UN camps near Beni and set fire to one of its offices.
The same day, the president’s office announced the DRC and UN peacekeepers would launch “joint operations” to beef up security in Beni, and the Congolese army would establish an “advance headquarters” in the town.
“People in Beni say they are very angry. They say the UN and the government are not protecting them,” Wambua-Soi said. “They’ve been chanting that if you cannot protect us leave us to protect ourselves.”
‘No easy solution’
Eighty-one people in the Beni region have been killed since November 5, according to a not-for-profit organisation, the Congo Research Group.
It said the ADF – with Ugandan origins that have plagued eastern DRC since the mid-1990s – has killed more than 1,000 civilians since October 2014.
MONUSCO, one of the biggest UN peacekeeping operations in the world, comprises more than 16,500 military personnel and observers, 1,300 police, and at least 4,000 civilians.
But it has struggled to make headway in a vast country beset by armed groups, as well as entrenched poverty and poor governance.
Grignon said there was no “quick fix” to the unrest.
“It’s quite difficult to uproot this [ADF] movement, which has indeed been present for a long time. We are in the middle of a very difficult situation. There is no easy solution.
“There is no alternative to us working closely together with the DRC, with the national police, and the population to uproot and arrest those who are members of ADF and the criminal gangs, and to end their presence in Benin once and for all.”