TSHIMBULU, Democratic Republic of Congo - The increasingly brutal nature of fighting in central Congo between the army and local militia is on vivid display in the village of Tshienke, where the bodies of rebel fighters were dumped into a mass grave last month following intense clashes.
A visit to this site this month was the first time that journalists including Reuters have been able to see the toll that the Congolese military has exacted on fighters of the Kamuina Nsapu militia, whose insurgency poses the most serious threat to the rule of President Joseph Kabila.
Reuters was unable to determine the exact number of bodies in eight mass graves dug in January and February in Congo's Kasai-Central province. The graves were also confirmed by nine local witnesses.
The United Nations said it suspects that Congolese forces killed 84 militia members close to the town of Tshimbulu between 9 and 13 February.
The government denies its soldiers used disproportionate force and says they have recovered automatic weapons from militia fighters after clashes.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters that the bodies in the mass graves were those of Kamuina Nsapu fighters and it was the group who had buried them, not the army.
"I don't see why the soldiers would hide the fact, that after clashing with the terrorists, the terrorists died," he said, confirming that the army killed militia fighters in the clashes.
Leaders of Kamuina Nsapu could not be reached for comment.
At one grave site at Tshimbulu, a human femur poked out of the dirt and shards of bone dotted the perimeter.
"We saw arms and legs. There were ... people who were entirely exposed because they hadn't been buried well," said one man who found the mass grave last month with fellow farmers.
He, like about a dozen witnesses Reuters interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the army.
Two kilometres away in Tshienke, another farmer pointed out two more mass graves she said contained bodies dumped by an army truck between 8pm and 11pm on the night of 12 February, following intense clashes on 9 and 10 February.
A red headband of the kind worn by members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia was wedged in the grass near the graves.
In a statement to Reuters, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo said it informed the government earlier this month of three alleged mass grave sites in Tshimbulu and, in December, of seven more in the village of Nkoto, about 150km northwest. The government says the graves were dug by the militia.
Kabila's decision not to step down when his presidential mandate expired in December was followed by a wave of killings and lawlessness across the vast central African nation.
Kabila has said he is committed to respecting the constitution but an election to choose his successor cannot take place until a lengthy voter registration process is completed.
However, the rebellion that began in Kasai-Central has spread to five of Congo's 26 provinces and resulted in hundreds of deaths.