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Vehicles of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo soldiers escort civilian vehicles transporting goods from Beni towards Komanda on March 19, 2022.SEBASTIEN KITSA MUSAYI/AFP/Getty Images

Islamist militants killed at least 35 people in an overnight attack on a village in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in retaliation for a military crackdown on rebel activity, an army spokesperson said on Thursday.

The assailants were members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Anthony Mualushayi said, referring to a Ugandan armed group based in eastern Congo that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State and conducts frequent raids on villages.

The attack targeted the village of Mukondi, around 30 km (20 miles) south of the city of Beni in North Kivu province, an area plagued with rebel activity that has been under military administration since 2021 in an attempt to restore order.

Mualushayi gave a provisional death toll of 35 civilians in a recorded interview with a local radio reporter shared on WhatsApp and verified by Reuters.

He said the attack was carried out in retaliation for the army detaining more than 22 ADF collaborators and closing down pharmacies allegedly supplying the group with chemicals to make bombs.

The situation on the ground was relatively calm, with security forces and Red Cross workers at the scene and burial preparations under way, he said.

Soldiers were chasing after the rebels to rescue hostages, he added.

Provincial governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita said on Twitter on Thursday morning that at least 36 people had been killed in the attack, which started on Wednesday evening.

The head of a local civil society group, Mumbere Limbadu Arsene, gave a provisional death toll of 44, including women, children and the elderly, and said several villagers were still missing.

Both sources also blamed the ADF, which was created in Uganda before moving to eastern Congo in the 1990s, and has been blamed for thousands of deaths in the last decade.

Congo’s government declared a state of siege in North Kivu and neighbouring Ituri province in 2021, in an attempt to stem rampant militia violence in the country’s vast mineral-rich east.

But the killings and rebel activity have not shown any sign of abating.