Kinshasa (AFP) - The DR Congo government said on Tuesday it had opened a secret military probe into security forces whom Human Rights Watch accused of using "excessive lethal force" against a separatist sect last month, killing at least 55 people.
The offensive against Bundu Dia Kongo took place April 13-24 in Kinshasa and the neighbouring Kongo Central province, HRW alleged in a report, adding that scores more were wounded in the clashes.
The BDK aims to revive the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom that included what are today parts of neighbouring Angola, the Republic of Congo and Gabon, and has repeatedly clashed with security forces.
HRW said BDK leader Zacharie Badiengila -- a self-styled prophet known as Ne Muanda Nsemi -- had called for his supporters to "chase" out people not of Kongo ethnicity, triggering the government crackdown.
Nsemi, who proclaimed himself president of DR Congo in January in what he called a "divine coup", was arrested on April 24.
Interior Minister Gilbert Kankonde said at the time that eight sect members who were present were killed and eight police officers were seriously wounded, calling the figures "preliminary".
An eyewitness told AFP that he saw around 15 bodies and that dozens were wounded on both sides.
HRW put the death toll at 33 in Tuesday's report and alleged that another police operation on April 22 in Songololo, near the key RN1 highway linking Kinshasa with the country's sole outlet to the sea, claimed 15 lives.
"Tensions escalated between April 13 and 15 as hundreds of BDK members erected roadblocks in (five) towns, chanting anti-ethnic slogans and threatening 'foreign ethnic groups'," the report said.
"Police forces deployed to disperse the small crowds at times fired live ammunition. Witnesses and police reports, among other sources, said at least six BDK members and one bystander were killed."
- 'Bloodbath' -
The report added that a BDK member allegedly shot dead a police officer in the town of Kisantu on April 13.
HRW said the crackdown "violated international standards on the use of force, causing a bloodbath".
Human Rights Minister Andre Lite said Tuesday that the matter was "in the hands of the military justice system".
"Hearings have been held and the investigation is secret," he told AFP.
A general appeared before a Kinshasa military tribunal, he said, adding that "police officers implicated in the looting of Ne Muanda Nsemi's residence are in custody awaiting trial".
Lite said military justice should be allowed to take its course, adding: "There's no complacency."