GATUMBA, Burundi – Attackers armed with machetes and automatic weapons raided a U.N. refugee camp in western Burundi (search), shooting and hacking to death at least 180 men, women and children, U.N. officials said.
Burundian Hutu (search) rebels claimed responsibility, insisting the camp for Congolese Tutsi (search) refugees fleeing tribal fighting was a hide-out for Burundi army soldiers and Congolese tribal militiamen.
But most of the victims appeared to be women and children. Their charred remains lay among the cooking utensils and the smoldering remnants of their former homes on Saturday.
The camp, 12 miles from the border with Congo, sheltered ethnic Tutsi refugees, known as the Banyamulenge, who fled fighting in Congo's troubled border province of South Kivu, U.N. officials visiting the camp after the attack said.
"People were sleeping when the attack happened," Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman of the U.N. mission in Congo said. "People were killed as they tried to escape."
Isabelle Abric, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Burundi, said 159 people were killed on the spot and 101 others were wounded in the attack in Gatumba. At least 30 of the wounded died later in hospital, she said.
Leaflets distributed before the raid warned refugees to leave the camp or face attacks by a coalition of Burundian, Rwandan and Congolese factions seeking "to fight the Tutsi colonization in the region," survivors said.
The attackers spoke languages and dialects from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and were believed to have crossed into Burundi from Congo, witnesses told The Associated Press. They asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
Later Saturday, Burundian officials and aid workers moved the refugees to a nearby school where they will be protected by the army, said Louis Niyonzima, the local mayor.
A spokesman of the U.N. refugee agency said the attackers raided a nearby army camp before attacking the refugees.
"These guys were armed with grenades, machetes, and automatic weapons. While the attack was going on they were beating drums," said Fernando del Mundo, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
Pasteur Habimana, spokesman for the National Liberation Forces, justified the attack, saying Burundian soldiers were hiding in the camp, located about a half mile from an army position.
"We were also attacked by armed Banyamulenge militiamen who lived in this camp," he said. "The camp was a genuine Banyamulenge militiamen headquarters."
The National Liberation Forces is the last main rebel movement fighting the government in Burundi's 10-year-old civil war, which has killed some 260,000 people.
War broke out in 1993, when Hutus took up arms after Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the country's first democratically elected president, a Hutu. Burundi's Tutsi minority has effectively run the country for all but a few months since independence in 1962.
Army spokesman Col. Adolphe Manirakiza denied rebel claims that Burundian troops fled into the camp and said there was no attack on the nearby army position.
Burundian President Domitien Ndayizeye described the massacre as "a shame" and asked the Congolese government to assist in investigations.
"What I can say is that it is Burundi which has been attacked. The attackers killed innocent refugees who sought refuge in Burundi," Ndayizeye said. The rebels "declared that they attacked a military camp and that the soldiers fled in this camp but I saw no soldier's body except those of young children, women and old persons."
Congo's President Laurent Kabila said he "energetically condemns this ignoble act," and demanded an international investigation.
In a statement, Kabila also called on the Burundian government and the U.N. refugee agency to secure the area and protect "the vulnerable population."
The attack occurred one day after Congolese Vice President Azarias Ruberwa visited the camp to encourage the refugees to return home.
United Nations officials are studying whether the attack was carried out with the assistance of Congolese tribal fighters known as the Mayi Mayi or Rwandan rebels based in eastern Congo, Nabaa said.
The Rwandan insurgents include members of the former army and the extremists Interahamwe militia who fled to Congo after playing a key role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
More than 500,000 minority Tutsis and political moderates from the Hutu majority were killed in the 100-day slaughter organized by the extremist Hutu government then in power.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame said Friday's massacre proves "that there have been incidents that are ignored by the international community and the U.N. where people are being killed in eastern Congo, being targeted for who they are."
Ongoing ethnic strife in the region threatens to undermine peace efforts after Congo's 1998-2003 war, which drew at least five countries' armies into fighting. The seeds of that conflict lay in Rwanda's genocide, which sent hundreds of thousands of refugees and suspected genocidal killers into eastern Congo.