Gunmen killed at least 20 people this week in an ambush in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the latest episode in a communal conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives in the past year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
According to the human rights NGO, the ambush was carried out on Monday by "Mobondo" militiamen against a truck carrying mainly traders from the Teke community, near the village of Mulunu, in the Kwamouth territory (Maï-Ndombe province), north-east of Kinshasa.
"The assailants then set fire to the vehicle", wrote HRW in a statement posted on its website.
A conflict broke out in June 2022 between the Teke, who consider themselves to be the originators and owners of villages located along the Congo River over a distance of around 200 kilometres, and the Yaka, who came to settle after them.
"The simmering conflict degenerated into widespread violence after many farmers, mainly Yaka, rejected an increase in customary royalties by Teke chiefs", recalls Human Rights Watch.
Groups calling themselves Mobondo "recruited mainly from the so-called 'non-native' Yaka, Suku, Mbala, Ndinga and Songo communities, and targeted Teke villagers with machetes, spears, shotguns and military assault rifles", the NGO continues.
The Congolese security forces carried out operations "but were unable to put an end to the violence", it notes.
The violence has resulted in "hundreds" of deaths and forced "thousands" of people to flee their homes. "Insecurity is preventing many pupils from sitting their end-of-year exams", while the voter census for the December elections has so far been unable to take place.
HRW points out that at the end of April, the government set up "a commission of enquiry into abuses committed by the security forces".
But, it says, "hundreds of surrendered assailants were transferred to military training centres without ever having had their profiles thoroughly examined".
In addition, "the government has tasked certain individuals - described as the 'intellectual authors' of the communal violence in a national police wanted notice - with mediating between the communities in conflict and helping to demobilise the Mobondo militiamen".
"Instead of putting an end to the atrocities, the lack of accountability for the alleged perpetrators and instigators of the crimes is reinforcing mistrust between the communities and leading to new atrocities", deplores Human Rights Watch.