Congolese security troops killed at least 36 Burundian refugees and injured more than 100 others during confrontations Friday over plans to return some of the refugees to their home country, officials and local activists said.
Soldiers and police opened fire as the refugees tried to free some of their compatriots in Kamanyola, a town in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo near the Burundi border.
The troops attempted to disperse the refugees by "firing in the air but were overwhelmed" when the group began throwing stones, according to Interior Ministry official Josue Boji.
Eyewitness Alfred Rukungo said the soldiers continued shooting into the crowd even after some refugees were wounded.
Congo-based U.N. communications official Florence Marchal confirmed the deaths and said the Congolese government, the U.N. refugee agency and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo "have deployed teams on-site to shed light on everything that happened."
A statement by released by the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) said at least 117 others had been wounded and that the death toll was likely to rise.
Maman Sidikou, head of MONUSCO, called on authorities to quickly investigate the incident.
"I am deeply shocked with the large number of civilian victims that were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to seek protection and I condemn all kinds of violence between communities," Sidikou said.
Burundi Foreign Minister Alain Aime Nyamitwe asked Congo and the U.N. on Twitter for an explanation of the shootings.
The U.N. refugee agency issued a statement expressing shock and sadness over the deaths, and it called for an investigation. The UNHCR said it and its partners had sent teams to Kamanyola, including medical staff, to treat the injured.
"While the precise circumstances are not yet clear, reports indicate that in the course of a confrontation with Burundian demonstrators, Congolese security forces opened fire on the crowd. Initial reports suggest over 30 dead and more than one hundred left injured," the UNHCR statement said.
More than 400,000 refugees from Burundi have fled to neighboring Congo since 2015 to escape political violence sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's successful but disputed bid to win a third term in office.