The UN human rights office said that intercommunal violence that left at least 535 people dead in the western Democratic Republic of the Congo may amount to crimes against humanity.

Congolese people carrying their children and belongings flee from Sake on a road linking Goma and Bukavu while escaping violence in DR Congo.
Congolese people carrying their children and belongings flee from Sake on a road linking Goma and Bukavu while escaping violence in DR Congo. (Getty Images)

The verified deaths of at least 535 men, women, and children in fighting between two communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December may amount to crimes against humanity, the UN human rights office said on Tuesday.

The UN said in January there were credible reports of at least 890 deaths in the clashes over three days in four villages in Yumbi territory in the west of the country.

It sent a special investigative mission that found intercommunal attacks had been planned and carried out.

The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities was triggered by a dispute over the burial of a Banunu chief, the investigators found. 

Batende villagers attacked with extreme violence and speed, allowing little time to escape, the UN said.

"In some cases, witnesses report that victims were asked if they were Banunu, before they were killed. Many were killed as they tried to cross the Congo River. Others were burnt alive in their homes," a UN statement said.

"The report details horrors documented such as a two-year-old reportedly thrown into a septic tank."

More than 19,000 people were displaced, and almost 1,000 buildings, including churches, schools, and health centres, were destroyed or looted.

The report said the violence was facilitated by a lack of intervention by Congolese provincial authorities, who "appear to have failed in their responsibility to protect the population."

The violence could flare up again at any time, the investigators' report said.

The investigators only managed to reach three out of the four locations and the casualty numbers were likely to be higher than the verified figure because bodies were believed to have been thrown into the Congo River.

Source: Reuters