M23 rebels killed at least 131 civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo late last month as part of a campaign of murder, rape, kidnapping and looting, the United Nations has said.
Authorities in Kinshasa had earlier said more than 270 people were killed in the M23 attacks in North Kivu province. The group denied being behind the massacre, blaming “stray bullets” for the deaths of just eight civilians.
In a preliminary investigation released on Thursday into the November 29-30 massacres in the villages of Kishishe and Bambo, the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, and the Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) found the killings were undertaken in retaliation for clashes between M23 and rival armed groups.
“The victims were arbitrarily executed with bullets or bladed weapons,” the UN said in a statement.
It said that 102 men, 17 women and 12 children were killed by bullets or other weapons.
“Eight people were wounded by bullets and 60 others kidnapped. At least 22 women and five girls were raped,” it added.
Investigators interviewed 52 victims and direct witnesses, and various other sources in Rwindi, about 20km (12 miles) from Kishishe, where survivors and witnesses had taken refuge, the UN said. Investigators could not go to the affected villages because of security concerns.
Witnesses told the investigators that members of M23 broke down doors, shot civilians, looted property and burned houses in the villages. They also said that most of the survivors were prevented by M23 from leaving the ransacked villages.
“This violence was carried out as part of a campaign of murders, rapes, kidnappings and looting against two villages in the Rutshuru territory as reprisals for the clashes between the M23” and other armed groups, the UN statement said.
“MONUSCO condemns in the strongest terms the unspeakable violence against civilians and calls for unrestricted access to the scene and the victims for emergency humanitarian assistance,” it added.
M23, a mostly Congolese Tutsi group, has been leading an offensive in eastern DRC against the Congolese army.
The group, which has captured several towns near the borders of Rwanda and Uganda this year, has denied responsibility for the killings and asked for a full investigation.
“We gave our version of the facts. We asked that there be investigations together with us in Kishishe but the UN never came,” M23 spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka told the Reuters news agency. “The UN is under pressure from the government to come up with a figure, even if it is false.”
M23’s recent offensives have uprooted thousands of civilians and sparked a diplomatic spat with neighbouring Rwanda, which DRC and UN experts accuse of backing the group. Rwanda denies any involvement.
The rebel group has said it is ready to withdraw from occupied territory and will support regional peace-making efforts, despite not being represented in peace talks, the third round of which concluded without resolution in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this week.