At least 30 Burundian refugees have been killed in clashes with Congolese security forces over plans to send some of them home, a Reuters witness and local activists said on Saturday.
Police and soldiers opened fire as the refugees protested over the plan in the town of Kamanyola in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday, the activists told Reuters.
More than 400,000 refugees have fled Burundi – including 40,000 to neighbouring Congo – since violence erupted in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would seek a third term in office, a move his opponents said was unconstitutional.
Activist Wendo Joel said the refugees had seized a weapon and killed a soldier as they tried to free some of their arrested compatriots, though that account was not confirmed by other sources.
“The soldiers first fired in the air but there were many refugees,” Joel told Reuters. “I have counted 32 bodies. There are also about 100 wounded.”
Reuters TV footage showed more than 30 bodies covered by sheets on the roadside in Kamanyola, with many more wounded also lying in the street.
A U.N. spokeswoman said she could confirm at least 18 deaths but that the number was likely to rise, adding that many refugees had taken shelter at the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s nearby base.
A local army spokesman, Dieudonne Kasereka, told Reuters there had been clashes between soldiers and refugees armed with knives and machetes, but that he did not know if there were any deaths.
According to a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, more than 2,000 Burundian asylum seekers and refugees live in Kamanyola with host families.
In a statement, Burundi’s main opposition grouping, CNARED, accused Burundian army troops and members of the ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth group Imbonerakure of carrying out the killings with the Congolese army.
Spokesmen for the two governments could not be immediately reached for comment, but Burundi’s foreign minister Alain Aime Nyamitwe wrote on Twitter: “My heart sinks as I learn of the shootings in Eastern #DRC.”
“Clarifications are needed on the shootings & circumstances around,” he added.
The violence in Burundi has killed over 700 people and a U.N. commission said last week there are reasonable grounds to believe national authorities have committed crimes against humanity. The government rejected the commission’s findings as “propaganda”.