Congo rebels discover 51 bodies in town captured from government army

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A Congolese rebel leader said today his forces had discovered the bodies of 51 civilians who appeared to have been shot at close range by government troops retreating from the northwestern town of Dongo.

A Congolese rebel leader said today his forces had discovered the bodies of 51 civilians who appeared to have been shot at close range by government troops retreating from the northwestern town of Dongo.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Movement that is fighting to oust President Laurent Kabila, said the 47 men and four women had been killed on 8 September in a house in Dongo, about 435 miles north-east of the capital, Kinshasa.

Speaking on a satellite telephone from his northern headquarters in Gbadolite, Bemba said the bodies were found when the rebels took Dongo on 9 September.

A group of foreign journalists who visited Dongo saw the bodies. But a government official denied that his forces were involved in the killings.

"This is completely false. We couldn't in any such manner sacrifice our people," said Commandant Masongze Asindi, the secretary to the chief fo the armed forces.

Bemba said two survivors who escaped through the window of the house before the government soldiers opened fire told his forces about the killings.

There was no immediate reaction from Kabila's government in Kinshasa.

Bemba said it was the second time that Kabila's troops had intentionally killed civilians. He said at least 120 people were found shot dead in Zongo, on the border with the Central African Republic, earlier this year.

All sides in Congo's two-year civil war have been accused of killing and harassing civilians, most of whom have shown little enthusiasm for the current conflict. In an earlier seven-month rebellion that was widely popular, forces led by Kabila and backed by Rwanda and Uganda toppled longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997.

Rwanda and Uganda are now backing the rebels who took up arms against Kabila in August 1998, accusing him of failing to rid Congo of at least 10,000 Rwandan Hutu militiamen who participated in the 1994 genocide of more than 500,000 people in Rwanda and later fled to the country that was then known as Zaire. The militiamen have since joined Kabila's army.

Bemba said the Hutu militiamen were supporting the Congolese army in battles against the rebels in Waka, southeast of Basankusu in the northwestern Equateur province.

Although Kabila and his allies and the rebels and theirs signed a peace agreement last year, fighting has recently intensified. Kabila is yet to authorize the planned deployment of 5,537 U.N. monitors and troops in support of a fragile cease-fire.

The rebels are divided among three factions in the eastern half of Congo, which they control with the help of Rwandan and Ugandan troops and equipment.

On Thursday, a pro-government militia fighting in eastern Congo said it had killed nearly 100 Rwandan soldiers near Walikale, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the rebel stronghold at Goma on the Rwandan border.

Most roads in eastern Congo have become too dangerous to travel because of attacks by local tribal fighters known as Mai-Mai who often fight alongside bands of Rwandan and Burundian Hutu rebels fighting to oust their respective governments.

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