Dozens killed in troubled eastern DR Congo province

Bunia (DR Congo) (AFP) - Dozens of people were killed overnight in fresh clashes in DR Congo's volatile northeastern Ituri province, sharpening an ethnic conflict that has already forced tens of thousands to flee, officials said Tuesday.

At least 30 people were killed in the latest unrest, which came in the wake of the interior minister's visit to the region.

"We have recorded 30 deaths. There are certainly other bodies out in the bush. A search is underway," a government official said.

Other sources gave a higher toll.

"In the village of Djo, (the attackers) killed 10 people, in Gbi, there were 10 dead, and in Takpa, 19 people were shot dead, which makes 39 dead," Willy Pilo Mulindro, head of Bahema-North district, told AFP.

The UN radio channel Okapi gave a toll of 41 dead in four villages, and said the attackers used machetes, arrows and Kalashnikovs.

Fighting in Ituri has involved the Hema and Lendu communities, respectively cattle herders and farmers who have a long history of violence over access to land.

At least 130 people have been killed since clashes flared anew in December, according to an unofficial toll compiled by AFP, while humanitarian workers say around 200,000 have been displaced, including tens of thousands have crossed the border to seek shelter in Uganda.

An inter-ethnic group called the Kinshasa Ituri Community (CIK) puts these figures far higher.

According to a local official, the latest clashes broke out just after Interior Minister Henri Mova wrapped up a tour of the region.

"While the minister is on the ground, we continue to kill each other," Gregoire Lusenge, a spokesman for a caucus of lawmakers from Ituri, told AFP.

"The police deployment seems insufficient. The few troops that are there are unable to contain the situation, which is getting worse and worse."

- Political insecurity -

The Congolese army gave a different version for the events in at least one village.

"There was no massacre in Djo," said lieutenant Jules Ngongo, a spokesman for an army unit based in Ituri.

"They were a group of robbers who had come to invade a village that had already been abandoned. Our troops chased them and currently the army is in control of the situation."

In 2003, a flareup of violence in Ituri triggered Operation Artemis, a three-month operation by the European Union -- its first military mission outside Europe. The operation averted a humanitarian catastrophe, but the fighting never came to a total halt.

The full scale of the latest bout of violence in the remote province remains unclear.

On Monday, the CIK said "several hundred" people had died and 350,000 been displaced, nearly 50,000 of whom had taken refuge in the town of Bunia. Added to this, it said, were nearly 65,000 who had fled to Uganda.

The conflict is part of a broader background of violence and instability in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Swathes of the territory are in the hands of militia groups, some of whom trace their origins back to two wars, from 1996-7 and 1998-2008, that drew in other countries in eastern and central Africa.

New conflicts are erupting in the east in a climate of political insecurity over the future of President Joseph Kabila.

In December, Kabila faces elections that have been twice delayed since his second presidential term -- the last under the country's constitution -- expired at the end of 2016.

Lusenge said the crisis in Ituri should not be used as "an alibi" to block the elections once more on the grounds that it would be impossible to draw up an electoral roll there.

"If we wait until they (displaced people) return home, we will give this regime yet another opportunity to delay the elections," he said.