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Army of ‘bewitched’ children involved in Congo massacres as UN reports hundreds of deaths

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image Displaced Congolese women sit inside the frames of a makeshift tent at a Mugunga IDP camp Credit: Getty

..."Their accounts should serve as a grave warning to the government of the DRC to act now to prevent such violence from tipping into wider ethnic cleansing."...

An armed militia which has been fighting Congo's government for a year and is believed to have summarily executed at least 79 people is largely composed of children, some as young as seven, the UN said on Friday.

Congolese refugees told the authors of a UN report that they believed the Kamuina Nsapu militia had magical powers, and militia members believed their magic - including young girls drinking the blood of decapitated victims - would make them invincible.

"This generalised belief about the powers of Kamuina Nsapu and the fear it triggers among segments of the population in the Kasais may partly explain why a poorly-armed militia, composed to a large extent of children, has been able to resist offensives by a trained national army for over a year."

The report detailed more than 250 "extrajudicial or targeted killings" of civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Kasai region from mid-March to mid-June, counting dozens of children among those massacred.

A militia formed to defeat the Kamuina Nsapu is suspected of a campaign of ethnically based massacres and rapes, the UN investigators said.

The report, detailing violence that the United Nations said may amount to crimes against humanity, shines a light onto the role of children and witchcraft in a conflict that has killed thousands.

"Their accounts should serve as a grave warning to the government of the DRC to act now to prevent such violence from tipping into wider ethnic cleansing."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said in a statement. Responding to the report, a spokesman for the Congo government said it would investigate and punish crimes.

There were no corroborated cases of Kamuina Nsapu committing large-scale killings based on ethnic identity, the report said. Typically its members would execute a government official and decapitate them, removing the head to put it in "sacred fire".

A second militia group, the Bana Mura, was formed in March or April, allegedly armed and supported by local leaders and officials from the army and the police, to attack the Luba and Lulua ethnic groups, to which Kamuina Nsapu fighters belong.

"The Bana Mura allegedly undertook a campaign aimed at eliminating the entire Luba and Lulua populations in the villages they attacked," the report said.

Scott Campbell, head of Central and West Africa at the UN human rights office, said the violence had spiralled out of control with the complicity of the government of President Joseph Kabila, whose mandate expired last December, and the UN was concerned it could be used to delay a fresh election.

The Congo government says the convictions of seven soldiers last month for murdering suspected militia members in Kasai show the justice system is acting.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters on Friday: "If it is the Bana Mura that have killed Congolese people, we will arrest them and bring them to justice."

He did not confirm or deny any elements of the UN report but said that it would help Congo with an upcoming investigation in Kasai, to be led by three human rights experts appointed by the United Nations.

The UN report said the Bana Mura were often accompanied by Congolese soldiers, who were responsible for atrocities including firing rockets into a church in the village of Djiboko on 10 June, killing 60-90 people attending a religious service. In one attack on a village, the Bana Mura shot, chopped up and disembowelled people.

Many were beheaded or burned alive, including the patients in a health centre, the report said. A woman still bleeding from childbirth was raped with the barrel of a rifle, it said. After a Bana Mura attack on another village, one witness claimed to have buried 45 decapitated bodies.

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