U.N. criticises "excessive" Congo crackdown on sect

Kinshasa, DRC - Congolese police killed prisoners and looted homes in an excessively violent crackdown on a shadowy separatist sect this year in which at least 100 people died, U.N. investigators said in a report.

Released late on Friday, it sharply criticised a campaign in February and March by Democratic Republic of Congo's security forces against the ethnic-based political and religious movement Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) in western Bas-Congo province.

From bases in the province the BDK has waged a campaign to re-establish the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom in parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Angola and Gabon. Authorities accuse its members of violent protests and killings carried out in the name of popular justice.

The U.N. human rights investigators' report said police used heavy machineguns, grenades and small arms against BDK members armed mainly with wooden weapons and "magical" talismans. It put the number of people killed at least 100, much higher than the death toll of 27 given by the Congolese government.

"The high death toll resulted, in large part, from unwarranted or excessive use of force," the U.N. report said.

"Particularly worrying are these instances of arbitrary execution of prisoners or persons who could not be classed as posing a threat to the police."

It was unusually sharp criticism from members of the large U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some 17,000 international soldiers and police are deployed to keep the peace.

The U.N. report called the government decision to send special police units made up partly of ex-soldiers to Bas-Congo as "at best misguided, at worst a deliberate decision, to conduct a military-style operation aimed at punishing the BDK".

Government officials in the vast, former Belgian colony were not immediately available to comment but have previously denied abuses and defended the operation as a legitimate move to reestablish state authority.

The U.N. investigators also documented what they called deliberate attempts to destroy evidence of the violence, saying many bodies were dumped in rivers.

Local Red Cross workers discovered several mass graves, and the U.N. investigators listed instances where bodies appeared to have been dug up and moved.

Police also destroyed more than 200 buildings and systematically looted private property, the report said.

The government banned the BDK in March. Three BDK militants were condemned to death and 15 others received lesser sentences last month for crimes committed before the latest crackdown.

Relief workers estimate the 1998-2003 Congolese conflict and the humanitarian disaster it triggered have killed some 5.4 million people, mostly from hunger and disease, making it the deadliest conflict since World War Two.