By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, May 28 (Reuters) - Congo’s army and U.N. peacekeeping troops launched a hunt on Monday for suspected Rwandan rebels who clubbed and hacked to death 17 villagers in eastern South Kivu province over the weekend, officials said.
Another 23 people were injured and a dozen more were kidnapped in the rebel attacks, which started late on Saturday, on three villages at Kanyola, 50 km (30 miles) west of the provincial capital Bukavu.
U.N. officials in Democratic Republic of Congo said most of the victims were killed in their beds. Some of the kidnapped were thought to have been executed.
"We have launched operations aimed at freeing those who were kidnapped and apprehending those responsible for the killings," Lieutenant Ambroise Kasanda wa Kasanda, Congo’s army spokesman for the region, told Reuters.
"(The U.N.) is with us," he said.
A spokesman for the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUC, confirmed that its troops were providing support for the Congolese army operations.
Attacks by rebels and renegade militias in eastern Congo have persisted despite historic U.N.-supervised elections last year which crowned a peace process ending a 1998-2003 war in the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony.
The first free vote in more than four decades was won by incumbent President Joseph Kabila.
Congolese and U.N. officials said they believed the weekend attacks were carried out by fighters known as "Rastas", a faction of the Hutu-dominated rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and local bandits.
The FDLR has operated in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which Hutu extremists slaughtered around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus before being defeated by Tutsis, who now lead the Rwandan government.
U.N. officials said the rebels had apparently carried out the weekend attacks in revenge for joint operations launched against them by U.N. and Congolese soldiers last month, when at least one rebel base was destroyed.
"They left notes behind saying the attacks were retaliation for operations carried out against them, and they said they were coming back," U.N. mission spokesman Kemal Saiki told Reuters.
"They were trying to kill a maximum number. They attacked silently. Most people were found killed in their beds," he said.
The U.N. Security Council voted this month to keep its 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo at least until the end of the year.