Dozens of Pygmies in Democratic Republic of Congo’s southeast were killed by Bantu militiamen in the past week, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said on Wednesday, in an escalation in a two-year ethnic conflict.
The Luba, a Bantu ethnic group, and the Twa, a Pygmy people who inhabit the Great Lakes region, have been in conflict since May 2013 in Katanga, a vast province known for its rich deposits of copper and other metals.
Local NGOs say that the violence is driven by social inequities between the Bantu villagers and the Twa, a hunting and gathering people who have long been denied access to land and basic services.
“Luba militiamen … massacred several dozen Pygmy civilians and burned the residence of the chief of the Pygmy community,” the U.N. mission’s interim military spokesman Major Faycel Ben Youssef told a news conference in the capital Kinshasa.
The killings, which took place near the town of Nyunzu in northern Katanga, were revenge for attacks by hundreds of Pygmies against Luba villages and army posts, Ben Youssef added.
The Twa-Bantu conflict and violence by a local secessionist militia has swelled the number of displaced in Katanga from 50,000 in 2011 to about 460,600 by March 31.
In November, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR labelled the humanitarian situation in Katanga “catastrophic.”
After a spike in tit-for-tat attacks in mid-2014 that prompted tens of thousands to flee, violence waned late last year before surging again in recent months.
The clashes, hundreds of kilometers north of the provincial capital of Lubumbashi, have not affected the province’s industrial copper and cobalt mines.
Experts say that Katanga’s security and humanitarian needs have gone largely unserved as foreign donors and U.N. peacekeeping troops focus on violence in the eastern Kivu provinces and Oriental province, ravaged by two decades of deadly conflict.