April 15, 2015 / 7:29 PM / 2 years ago

U.N. calls for exhumation of Congo mass grave

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of Congo urged the government on Wednesday to exhume more than 400 bodies buried last month in a mass grave, the head of the organization's human rights office said.

Local authorities in the capital Kinshasa have said they buried 421 corpses overnight on March 19 in the rural commune of Maluku. The government says the bodies are unclaimed fetuses, stillborn babies and homeless people from the city morgue.

However, rights groups suspect that some might be people killed in anti-government protests in January or an earlier crackdown on criminals in Kinshasa.

“We recommended doing the exhumation but it is up to the authorities to take all measures to reassure the population and to combat rumors,” José Maria Aranaz, director of the U.N.'s Congo-based Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO), said at a news conference.

Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe said last week that the government was prepared to exhume the bodies if asked by U.N. officials or the U.S.-based campaign group Human Rights Watch.

However, Thambwe said on Monday that the decision would be left to the prosecutor leading an investigation into the burials, explaining that the government wanted to show it could conduct a transparent investigation on its own.

Congolese authorities say the mass burial of unclaimed bodies is a common practice used to clear space at the overcrowded central morgue in Kinshasa.

Aranaz said that the U.N. mission was providing logistical support to the Congolese investigation in addition to carrying out its own. He said that his office had asked the government for all pertinent documents, including the morgue registry and death certificates, but was still awaiting a response.

Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Louise Ireland

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