A Burundian refugee said that more than 30 had been killed and at least 100 wounded in the violence in Kamanyola, in the eastern province of South Kivu, on Friday.
Maman Sidikou, the head of MONUSCO, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country, said in a statement Saturday that at least 36 refugees had been reported killed.
He also stressed that defence and security forces could resort to force “only as a last resort” and in accordance with international norms, and urged “the authorities to promptly open criminal investigations”.
Interior ministry official Josue Boji said the clashes began after a group of refugees overran a jail run by the country’s domestic intelligence agency to demand the release of four Burundians who had been arrested for expulsion on Wednesday night.
Boji, who had put the toll at 34 dead earlier — including a Congolese soldier — said troops tried to disperse the refugees by “firing in the air but were overwhelmed” when the group responded by throwing stones.
At least 124 refugees were also wounded.
The UN refugee agency also called for an investigation of “this tragic incident,” saying in a statement that it was “in shock and saddened”.
The agency said it had sent teams to Kamanyola, including medical staff to see to those injured.
A Burundian refugee told AFP: “I saw people falling down, men, women and children who were completely unarmed.”
Burundi’s foreign minister, Alain-Aime Nyamitwe, on Twitter described the incident as a “shooting” and said “explanations are needed.”
Tens of thousands of Burundians have fled to the eastern DR Congo to escape a wave of violence that unfurled in 2015 after Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a fiercely contested third term in office.
Overall, the violence in Burundi has claimed between 500 and 2,000 lives, according to differing tolls provided by the UN or NGOs and more than 400,000 Burundians have fled abroad.
Around 36,000 are in DR Congo, mainly in the overcrowded camp of Lusenda in the east, or several transit camps.
Most of the refugees involved in Friday’s incident are followers of a female prophet called Zebiya, who has attested to seeing visions of the Virgin Mary in northern Burundi, according to testimony to AFP from some of them.
They fear religious persecution if they are sent back home, they said.
On September 4, the UN released a report accusing Burundi’s government of crimes against humanity, including executions and torture, and urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a case “as soon as possible”.
Burundi’s government firmly rejected the allegations, accusing the UN investigators of being “mercenaries” in a Western plot to “enslave African states”.