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GENEVA/KINSHASA (Reuters) - The U.N. rights chief said on Tuesday a militia linked to Democratic Republic of Congo's government has committed a string of ethnically-motivated attacks in recent months, including cutting off toddlers' limbs and stabbing pregnant women.
Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein called for an international investigation, saying the Kinshasa government had not done enough to look into the atrocities. Congo's human rights minister dismissed that statement.
Zeid told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva he had reports the Bana Mura militia was backing the government in its fight against insurgents in the central Kasai region, and had focused attacks on two ethnic groups, the Luba and Lulua.
"Refugees from multiple villages in the Kamonya territory indicated that the Bana Mura have in the past two months shot dead, hacked or burned to death, and mutilated, hundreds of villagers, as well as destroying entire villages," Zeid said.
Congo's government has been fighting insurgents in Kasai since last August, triggering fears of a wider conflict in the large central African country, which is a tinderbox of ethnic rivalry and competing claims over mineral resources.
Wars at the turn of the century killed millions and involved more than a half-dozen neighbouring countries.
Violence has increased since December, when President Joseph Kabila decided to stay in power beyond the end of his two-term mandate on the grounds that more time was needed to prepare for elections. Kasai is an opposition stronghold.
Congo's Human Rights Minister Marie Ange Mushobekwa told the council her government was investigating the reports of atrocities and had nothing to hide, suggesting the accusations were politically motivated.
"Some countries ... should not try to use the Human Rights Council – such a respectable institution – to settle scores with states whose leaders they don't like," she said.
She dismissed earlier reports from Zeid's team of the discovery of mass graves in the territory, saying one site had turned out to contain just a rifle and another a motorcycle.
"The sad truth is that they are looking for mass graves everywhere except where they may actually exist," she told the council.
Zeid said U.N. investigators had seen children as young as two whose limbs had been chopped off and babies had machete wounds and severe burns.
"One two-month-old baby seen by my team had been hit by two bullets four hours after birth; the mother was also wounded. At least two pregnant women were sliced open and their foetuses mutilated," he added.
He asked the rights council to authorise an international investigation as progress in Congolese investigations "has clearly been insufficient in view of the massive scale and horrific nature of the crimes that have taken place and, sadly, continue".
Security forces and the Kamuina Nsapu militia have killed at least 3,383 people in Kasai since October, the Catholic church said on Tuesday, citing its own sources in the remote territory bordering Angola.
The report said the army destroyed 10 villages as it sought to stamp out an insurrection and accused the militia of killing hundreds of people, destroying four villages and attacking church property in a campaign to drive out government troops.
No one was immediately available to comment from the militia or the army, which has dismissed previous accusations of abuses. But the report will carry considerable weight in a country where about 40 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.
Fighting surged in Kasai in August when the army killed a chief who had been calling for central government forces to quit the region, saying it should be left to local leaders.
The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva is due to decide this week whether to authorise an investigation into the Kasai violence. U.N. investigators say they have discovered 42 mass graves.
Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, editing by Ed Osmond