Suspected rebels killed at least 36 civilians in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the provincial governor said on Sunday, marking the deadliest massacre in the conflict-ravaged region this year.
The assailants hacked to death 22 men and 14 women late on Saturday in their homes and fields on the outskirts of the local commercial hub of Beni, Julien Paluku said in a statement.
The population of Beni "has once again been hit by terrorist acts of diverse origins whose objective is to sabotage the efforts at peace undertaken over the last two years," he said.
Local activists say more than 500 civilians have been killed near Beni since October 2014, most in overnight raids by rebels carried out with machetes and hatchets.
Local army spokesman Mak Hazukay told Reuters that the attack was staged in the early evening by rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist militia that has operated in eastern Congo since the 1990s.
The ADF, a secretive organization of only a few hundred fighters, did not comment.
Hazukay said the raid was in reprisal for army operations against the ADF, which the government says is responsible for nearly all the attacks near Beni over the last year.
However, a United Nations panel of experts and independent analysts says that other armed groups, including some Congolese soldiers, have been involved in attacks on civilians.
It appeared to be the deadliest attack in the area since an assault blamed on the ADF in November 2014 killed some 80 people.
"The goal of the attack is to incite the population to rise up against us," Hazukay said.
Omar Kavota, the executive director at the Centre of Study for the Promotion of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights that documents violence in North Kivu, said he had received reports of as many as 50 dead.
Eastern Congo is plagued by dozens of armed groups that prey on locals and exploit mineral reserves. Millions died there between 1996 and 2003 as a regional conflict caused hunger and disease.
Analysts say insufficient intelligence, coordination and resources have rendered the Congolese army and the country's U.N. peacekeeping force ineffective against the small ADF force, raising tensions in the region.
On Sunday, dozens took to the streets in Beni, erecting barricades in protest against the army's inability to deal with the attacks, witnesses said.