Suspected Islamists kill 18, torch church in east Congo

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BENI, Congo (Reuters) - Assailants killed at least 18 people and burned down a church in a village in eastern Congo on Wednesday night, a civil rights group and local committee said, blaming fighters from an Islamist militia group operating in the area.

The army confirmed the attack on Baeti village in North Kivu province, around 20 km (12 miles) west of the city of Oicha, but declined to give a death toll.

The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan armed group active in eastern Congo since the 1990s, has killed more than 1,000 civilians since the start of 2019, according to U.N. figures, despite repeated military campaigns aimed at destroying it.

"We have a provisional death toll of 18 people killed in an atrocious way," said Kinos Katuho, president of a local civil rights group.

"It really creates pain in our hearts, a total panic in the village," said Masisa Mushogoro, head of a development committee in Baeti. "We don't know if tomorrow the ADF will come back here again."

Authorities have accused the armed group of attacking the main prison in the city of Beni on Oct. 20, releasing more than 1,300 inmates, including an unknown number of militiamen and their own fighters.

Reprisal attacks against civilians have increased sharply since the army began a counter-insurgency operation against the ADF a year ago, dislodging it from several bases near the Ugandan border.

ADF combatants dispersed into small groups and fled into other areas, burning down entire villages, destroying health centres and schools, and abducting men, women and children. The violence could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the U.N..

(Reporting by Erikas Mwisi Kambale; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)