South African peacekeeping troops participated in an attack on a Democratic Republic of Congo village in which innocent civilians were allegedly massacred, a journalist has reported in the New York Times.

Monuc, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC, has promised to investigate the allegations.

Journalist Aidan Hartley claims he was part of a TV crew which witnessed the combined attack by the DRC army and Monuc peacekeeping troops on the village of Kazana in Ituri province on April 21 this year.

They were supposed to be hunting down rebel militias disrupting the peace process leading up to the country's historic elections on Sunday.

But they fired indiscriminately, Hartley said, killing many civilians, even when told by radio by the pilot of a UN helicopter gunship circling the area that he could not fire on the fleeing villagers because the only people he could see were unarmed.

"Nonetheless, the mortar barrage continued for seven hours.

He does not make clear the precise role of the South African contingent in the incident, but says mortars were fired by "the international troops" - which he describes at the start of his report as comprising South African and Pakistani soldiers.

"Blue-helmeted troops also pumped heavy machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades into the hamlet," wrote Hartley.

He says villagers told him afterwards at least 30 civilians had died though the DRC army claimed it has killed 34 combatants only.

Military sources in the DRC said on Friday that the death of civilians in the pacification of the DRC was regrettable but should be considered as "collateral damage" in accordance with rules of engagement designed at the top.

The mandate of foreign armed forces was to secure Sunday's elections, even at the cost of civilian lives in certain areas, they said.

Many members of the international community in Kinshasa have welcomed the South African operations as tough and effective, and as a model for the DRC's nascent army to follow.

By yesterday, Monuc had not yet released a promised statement on the allegations.

Hartley said he had been told an investigation was under way, but that UN investigators had never asked to see the many hours of TV footage his crew had taken of the incident.

"Despite receiving information from a circling command helicopter that the village was harmless, Monuc troops which also included Pakistanis, Nepalese and Morroccans, kept on firing mortars into the village," Hartley wrote.

"Before the attack, the United Nations' Pakistani and South African peacekeepers had been assured by the Congolese authorities that the town held only rebels and perhaps a few brainwashed camp followers.

The international troops claim that they issued advance notice through radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped by planes. But Kazana's survivors, whom we later interviewed, denied receiving any warnings".

Hartley said his crew followed a UN platoon into the village. When it was ambushed by militia fighters, the UN called in a mortar strike and beat off the militia.

In the village afterwards, "we mostly observed signs of civilian life brutally interrupted, with pools of blood alongside half-cooked meals".

Then DRC troops set fire to every house "as the peacekeepers stood idly by".

Military sources in the DRC said Monuc was operating in Ituri under a "Chapter 7 mandate" from the UN Security Council, allowing it to act "robustly" to make the July 30 elections possible.

This included helping the national army to fight militias, accepting there could be "collateral damage", especially when combatants were hiding among civilians.

FARDC is widely considered to be badly equipped and badly paid, and thus dependent upon loot and the suppression of local populations.

Daniel Augstburger, acting head of UN humanitarian affairs in the DRC, said tough action against militias was inevitable since the militias were among the worst abusers of human rights.

It should not be like this, he said, but this was the harsh reality. - Independent Foreign Service