June 8, 2015 / 2:42 PM / 2 years ago

Congo families call for exhumation of mass grave

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Families in the Democratic Republic of Congo have called on the government to exhume a mass grave they say may contain the bodies of 34 of their relatives feared detained and executed by the security forces.

Some of the people have not been seen since violent demonstrations broke out in January against a proposed election law that critics said was a ploy to keep President Joseph Kabila in office beyond the end of his mandate in 2016.

Twenty-six have been missing since a crackdown on street gangs in the capital Kinshasa in late 2013 and early 2014, named Operation Likofi, or "punch" in the national Lingala language.

The family members said in a letter to the national prosecutor, Floribert Kabange Numbi, made public on Monday, they are yet to recover the bodies of those believed killed.

"We ... demand an independent, credible investigation of the mass grave in Maluku, without political interference and with the participation of Congolese and international investigators who will exhume the bodies and perform DNA tests," they wrote.

The names of the alleged victims were printed alongside the signatures of the family members.

Provincial authorities say they buried 421 fetuses, still-born babies and unclaimed corpses early on March 19 in a rural commune of the capital Kinshasa to clear space at the overcrowded central morgue.

Rights groups say they suspect the grave contains bodies of people killed by security forces during the January protests and Operation Likofi.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called on Monday for an exhumation and said security forces killed at least 38 civilians during the January protests and summarily executed at least 51 in Kinshasa during the anti-gang crackdown.

A prosecutor in Kinshasa is investigating the burial.

The government is aware of only two complaints filed by family members over the mass grave, government spokesman Lambert Mende told a news conference. Those two deaths had nothing to do with the protests or Operation Likofi, he said.

The U.N. mission in Congo and the U.S. government have urged the government to exhume the bodies.

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Catherine Evans

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