updated 10/27/2003 9:50:33 PM ET 2003-10-28T02:50:33

Dozens of tribal fighters attacked a village in volatile northeastern Congo with assault rifles and machetes, killing at least 65 people, mainly children, looting property and setting huts on fire, U.N officials said Tuesday.

U.N. troops who were sent to investigate the attack, which took place Monday in Katchele, found 23 bodies in a church, others in a mass grave and some in the bush surrounding the village, said Fred Eckhard, a U.N. spokesman in New York.

Isabelle Abric, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Congo, said the victims were from the Hema tribe and fighters from the rival Lendu tribe were suspected of carrying out the attack.

The victims found in the bush “may have been people who went to die in the bush after being injured in the attack,” Abric said. “They also could have been hunted down and attacked while hiding in the bush.”

Some 20 people wounded in the attack were being treated in hospitals, she said in a telephone interview from Bunia, the capital of the unstable Ituri province, where Katchele is located.

Ituri has been beset by fighting between the Hema and Lendu, and massacres and reprisal killings since 1999, a year after the civil war in Congo erupted.

A 3,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force was deployed to the region last month to try to stop the tribal clashes.

The attack Monday was the first reported large-scale killing in Ituri since the beefed-up U.N. force replaced a French-led emergency force on Sept. 1. The French-led force was deployed in Bunia in June to stabilize the town after tribal fighting had killed more than 500 people there.

Some 70 U.N. soldiers were deployed to Katchele, about 44 miles northwest of Bunia, after the discovery of the massacre, Abric said.

Eckhard said the U.N. peacekeepers would search for weapons linked to the killings, as well as suspects in the attack.

“It indicates that the security situation in this particular area of the Congo is still not under control and the increased number of peacekeepers that we have there will have to redouble their efforts to try to get the situation under control,” Eckhard said.

Thomas Lubanga, head of a Hema faction in the region, said Lendu fighters attacked the village between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. Monday after surrounding the area.

“They then attacked using automatic weapons and machetes, setting homes on fire and killing residents,” he said by telephone.

It was not immediately possible to contact Lendu leaders.

The Hema and Lendu have traditionally clashed over land and resources in the fertile province rich with timber, gold and the mineral coltan, needed to make cell phones.

But the clashes became more deadly in 1999, when the tribal fighters were armed with modern weapons and used as proxies by the Congolese government and rebels fighting in the broader civil war in Congo.

At least 50,000 people have been killed and more than 500,000 others displaced by conflict in Ituri since 1999.

The war in Congo broke out in August 1998 when Uganda and Rwanda sent troops to back rebels seeking to oust then-President Laurent Kabila.

The main fighting ended last year after a series of peace deals took hold. The Congolese government, now led by President Joseph Kabila — Laurent Kabila’s son — and the main rebel groups are currently working in a fledging transitional government.

But Ituri, and large parts of the rest of eastern Congo, remain unstable. For weeks, the United Nations has been trying to broker an effective cease-fire in Ituri as the first step toward the disarmament and demobilization of the tens of thousands of tribal fighters.

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