By Dino Mahtani

Lubumbashi - Peasant Mai Mai warriors have slaughtered about a hundred civilians and seven military officers in south-eastern Congo since January, often mutilating bodies and draining their blood, Congolese military officials said on Monday.

The killings near the town of Kitenge, about 700km north of the provincial capital Lubumbashi highlight the challenges for a 10 800-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission largely deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo's lawless east.

Violence in the east has persisted despite Congo's five-year war being officially declared over in July last year, bringing rebel groups into a power-sharing government set to shepherd the giant country back to democratic elections in two years time.

"It would be lying to say that these atrocities are not happening. We think at least a hundred people have been killed within a 100km radius of Kitenge since January," General Alengbia Nzambe, Katanga's military commander, told Reuters in Lubumbashi.

The killings have largely been perpetrated by men belonging to a Mai Mai group led by General "Chinja Chinja", literally translated as "The Ripper", who commanded troops hostile to the previous government during Congo's war, Nzambe said.

Congolese military officers did not ascribe political motives to the attack, rather they said "Chinja Chinja" was trying to make a name for himself by creating a cult of fear and brutality.

Local officials from Kitenge said at least 43 bodies had been recovered from the recent attacks and they expected many bodies were still lying in surrounding villages and bushlands.

Many of the bodies found were severely mutilated and disembowelled, with their sexual organs cut off and their bodies drained for their blood, according to Nzambe and civilians from Kitenge who had fled to Lubumbashi.

"After they had cut off the sexual organs, they walked away with them. They took the victims' blood in flasks," said Claude Panza wa Losol, a 22-year-old survivor nursing a bullet wound in his arm in the Don Bosco hospital in Lubumbashi.

The majority of the Mai Mai warriors fought alongside government troops during the war although "Chinja Chinja" and his men, estimated to number about 200, fought against it.

Congolese military officials say that "Chinja Chinja" is the last remaining militia leader in the north of Katanga province who is unwilling to integrate into the new Congolese army.

Tensions within his group and with other militias backed by the previous government have led to a series of attacks against civilians living among peasant fighters armed with machetes, spears, poison arrows and guns, officials said.

"I am happy to sit down with the other leaders who are willing to be a part of this new army, but the same cannot be said for Chinja. We are preparing an operation, but I cannot say what," Nzambe said.

So far, most UN troops have been deployed in the bloody north-eastern district of Ituri and central eastern provinces.

No heavy UN deployment has taken place in Katanga, despite promises by senior UN officials to move away from previous front lines into zones where lack of state authority has created power vacuums exploited by marauding militiamen.