Rebels in Congo `murder over 500'

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MORE THAN 500 civilians have been massacred by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Catholic missionary news agency reported last night.

The director of the Misna agency, Father Giulio Albanese, said the killings were carried out in the eastern village of Makobola, near Lake Tanganyika, between 30 December and 1 January.

"People are sending in lists of names of the victims. Whole families have been wiped out - including women, children and the elderly - shot, or hacked to pieces with machetes. In terms of sheer brutality, it is one of the worst atrocities we have witnessed in that area," Fr Albanese said yesterday from his headquarters in Rome.

He believed the massacre was an act of retaliation for the killing of Congo rebels by local Mai Mai warriors who support the government army of President Laurent Kabila. "Our sources say the massacre was carried out by Banyamulenge ethnic Tutsis with the support of Rwandan soldiers. We are not 100 percent sure of the Rwandan involvement but it is highly probable. The reason they targeted civilians is because the local population is seen as sympathetic to the Mai Mai." Among the victims was a local Protestant pastor, he said.

Misna is an information service representing 40 missionary congregations, non-government organisations and charities. There has been no independent confirmation of the New Year killings.

"We expect the rebels to do all they can to cover up the massacre," Fr Albanese said. "It's not a vast area but it is not easily accessible. We have reports that they have already buried many of the dead."

The rebel commander Jonas Padiri said yesterday there had been "no real problems". He said: "The area around Uvira [in the Lake Tanganyika area] is calm and has been calm."

He said rebel troops had often clashed with the Mai Mai in a corridor along Lake Tanganyika because the warriors had frequently ambushed civilians and rebel soldiers in the area. But he added: "Even if there was a provocation [of rebel forces] by the Mai Mai, it wouldn't have affected innocent civilians."

Last August, rebels supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda began a drive to overthrow President Kabila. Since then the rebels have captured much of the eastern part of Congo and thousands of people have fled the area.

Visitors to the region report increasingly frequent battles. In recent days, the army loyal to President Kabila said that it has retaken the towns of Moba and Nyunzu, in the Lake Tanganyika area, in an offensive against the rebels.