Geneva - Armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo's war-torn east province slaughtered more than 200 people, including scores of children, between April and September, hacking some to death and burning others alive, the UN said on Wednesday.
"At least 264 civilians, including 83 children, were arbitrarily executed by armed groups in more than 75 attacks on villages between April and September this year," the office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights said as it published a report into abuses in the DRC's resource-rich east.
Investigators focusing on the southern town of Masisi in North Kivu province uncovered evidence of victims being hacked to death with machetes.
Others were burnt alive in their homes, investigators found, blaming the majority of the killings on two armed groups, Raia Mutomboki and their allies the Mayi Mayi.
Raia Mutomboki is a homeland defence militia whose agenda is to ethnically cleanse the region, forcing all Kinyarwanda speakers out of the DRC. But it has also seized the villagers it purports to be protecting, using them as porters.
Fighters from an ethnic Hutu militia called Nyatura were also responsible for killings and other human rights abuses, the UN said, along with the Rwandan Hutu group the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which Kigali suspects includes fighters who took part in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda.
Following publication of the report - the result of six missions and more than 160 interviews with victims and witnesses - UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the killings as "the most serious [human rights violations] we have seen in recent times in the DRC."
The number of killings could be considerably higher, the UN agency said, lamenting that security concerns had prevented investigators from probing other reported violations.
Reflecting the ethnic nature of the slaughter, civilians killed by the Raia Mutomboki were mostly Hutu, while those killed by the Nyatura were mainly Tembo people, the UN said.
Competition for land, resources
Chronic unrest in eastern DRC over the past 15 years are rooted in competition for land and natural resources, the Geneva-based agency said, resulting in violence committed along ethnic lines.
Other human rights violations uncovered by the Geneva-based agency included mass forced displacement and large-scale looting.
Investigators also confirmed four cases of sexual violence involving the rape of 12 women.
The report's publication comes as the Congolese army continues to fight the M23 rebels in North Kivu, a group formed in May by army mutineers.
The M23, which has dubbed its armed wing the Congolese Revolutionary Army, was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the military under a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers claim were never fully implemented.
Rights groups have also accused the M23 of human rights abuses and of unleashing a fresh cycle of violence by the region's complex web of armed groups.