At least four civilians have been killed and dozens taken hostage in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when attackers ambushed a convoy and set fire to more than a dozen vehicles, the government says.
In a series of Twitter posts on Wednesday, the DRC’s communications ministry said the army had freed more than 50 of the hostages in Ituri province and blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group accused of killing thousands of people in recent years, for the attack.
“Widespread military operations are continuing in the area to free the other hostages,” the ministry added, without specifying how many people were still captive.
A local lawmaker said earlier that about 80 people were believed to be missing after the attack on a convoy of dozens of vehicles that was travelling with army protection on the road between the cities of Beni and Butembo.
The attackers set fire to 14 cars and two trucks before taking the hostages, the ministry added.
Survivors of the attack described a hail of gunfire as the convoy passed near the village of Ofai.
“Bullets started flying in every direction,” one of the survivors, Malanda Dague, told the Reuters news agency. “Some vehicles were hit and then burned.”
An attack occurred this morning on National Road 4, near Ofai (#Irumu territory, #Ituri). More than a dozen vehicles were burned. The final death toll is as yet unknown. The #ADF are suspected. #DRC pic.twitter.com/W5wMqsXPQq
— Baromètre sécuritaire du Kivu (@KivuSecurity) September 1, 2021
Attacks by the ADF and dozens of other armed groups operating in the region have continued unabated despite the government’s declaration of martial law in Ituri and neighbouring North Kivu province at the beginning of May.
The installation of army generals as provincial governors was meant to quell a surge in violence that the military largely attributes to the ADF, but the number of civilians killed in such attacks has further increased since then, according to KST.
“The ADF rebels cut the convoy in half,” local civil society official Dieudonne Malangayi told the AFP news agency of Wednesday’s ambush.
Jean-Paul Ngahangondi, a member of parliament in North Kivu province, where the convoy started, criticised what he said was the army’s slow response, a frequent complaint of local people.
“The army just waits for the rebels to kill the population and only then pursues them without any positive results,” he told Reuters. “We need to see the army launch a good offensive against the ADF instead of playing defence every time.”
Eastern DRC’s borderlands with Uganda and Rwanda have been plagued by violence since regional wars around the turn of the century in which millions of people died, mostly from hunger and disease.
Since April 2019, the ISIL (ISIS) group has claimed responsibility for some of the ADF attacks, and in March this year, Washington placed the ADF on a list of “terrorist organisations” affiliated with ISIL.
United Nations experts, however, have said they have not found conclusive evidence that ISIL has control over ADF operations.