KINSHASA - In a joint assault on a Ugandan rebel movement, the Congolese army and UN troops have freed more than 250 civilian hostages in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a senior official said Monday.
"We are still taking in several hostages" captured by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and released during the offensive that began in January, Bernard Amisi Kalonda, administrator of the Beni territory, told AFP.
"We have already reached more than 250 people who have returned to their places. Most of them are women and children," he added.
However, Teddy Kataliko, chairman of Beni's civil society body grouping a wide range of associations and trade unions, said that the number of people freed was far lower -- 97 since mid-January.
Local authorities and representatives of civil society plan to compare their lists to make sense of wide discrepancies in figures of freed hostages as well as the number of people still held by the ADF.
The civil society says the rebel group formed in neighbouring Uganda has almost 900 captives, while the authorities put the figure at more than 600.
Thousands of Congelese have fled fighting in the eastern part of DR Congo
The ADF, founded in the mid-1990s to fight the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, is one of many armed movements active in the mineral-rich but unstable North Kivu province. It has long had rear bases in the DR Congo.
Early this year, the Congolese army and UN troops launched a major offensive against the ADF.
Hostages fled rebel camps during the fighting, and were found in a state of advanced malnutrition, according to Kataliko, who added that several women had been "forced to become the wives of rebels".
"Some came out of the bush pregnant and hid on their return" to avoid the social stigma, Kataliko said.
The ADF, led by Christian-turned-Muslim Jamil Mukulu, is accused of several crimes including murder, looting and enlisting child soldiers. The United States placed the movement on its list of terrorist organisations in 2001 and Mukulu is wanted by Interpol.
The rebels finance their activities by trafficking in tropical timber and gold. Last month the UN Security Council agreed to impose sanctions on the ADF, including a ban on assets, an arms embargo and a travel ban.
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250 hostages of ADF freed in DR Congo