The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government on Tuesday dismissed Human Rights Watch (HRW) charges that Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels had killed about 300 people in December, saying “no more than 25” had died.
Officials in the neighbouring Central African Republic announced, meanwhile, new LRA attacks this month in which they said 15 of the rebels and 10 civilians were killed, one of them a woman burnt alive.
HRW at the weekend accused the Ugandan group, whose leaders are wanted for war crimes, of massacring 321 civilians and abducting 250 others in a previously unreported four-day “rampage” in north-eastern DRC in December.
The UN mission in the DRC (Monuc) said on Tuesday its own investigation, not yet officially released, found that at least 290 people were killed and about 150 abducted.
DRC’s Justice Minister, Lessa Bambi Luzolo, said the HRW claim was “clearly exaggerated”.
“When it comes to victims in the civilian population, the number of victims is no more than 25,” he said in a statement in Kinshasa.
“There were no massacres as stated in the report, but a few people attacked in passing by uncontrolled elements” of the LRA, Luzolo said.
“It’s about events that happened in December 2009 and the non-governmental organisation speaks about it as if it was yesterday,” he said.
The LRA took up arms against the government in northern Uganda in 1988 but since 2005 moved into the remote north-east of the DC after coming under pressure from the Ugandan army.
A senior officer in the DRC army also threw doubt on the HRW report, which the Ugandan army questioned on Monday.
“To say that the LRA are an organised structure with the capacity to commit such massacres, that’s not reality,” said General Jean-Claude Kifwa, commander of the region where the attacks occurred.
He said rebels were under control, except for a few isolated cases, and the “number of LRA rebels who could still be wandering in this country is no more than 30”.
Ugandan army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Felix Kulayigye said on Monday he doubted the HRW figures.
Given the weakness of the LRA’s remaining fighting force, it could not have carried out such a large-scale attack and then escaped unharmed, he said.
“They are remaining only with 200 fighters and those are scattered around northern DRC and Central African Republic,” he said.
Not a spent force
In its report released on Sunday, Human Rights Watch warned the attacks showed the “LRA remains a serious threat to civilians and is not a spent force, as the Ugandan and Congolese governments claim”.
The dead from the December 14 to 17 attacks included at least 13 women and 23 children, the youngest a three-year-old girl who was burned to death, it said in findings based on a visit to the area in February.
At least 80 of the 250 people abducted were children, it said, calling the massacre “one of the worst ever committed by the LRA”.
Senior HRW researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg said the government should go to the area to investigate.
“Civil society has already started registering the names of all the people who were killed and they have already reached more than 150,” she told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Across the border in the Central African Republic, a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity on Tuesday that LRA fighters attacked three villages in the south-east between March 21 and 28, killing 10 civilians.
Sixteen rebels were killed by villagers and Ugandan troops, he said.
More than 40 people were abducted, another official said in the border city of Bangassou, where about 400 people had taken refuge against the fighters, and a demonstration Tuesday demanded the government expel the rebels. — AFP