Congolese rebels killed 15 civilians and abducted a dozen children in an attack at the center of the latest deadly Ebola outbreak, Congo’s military said Sunday, as the violence again forced the suspension of crucial virus containment efforts.
“We condemn this attack,” said the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, while a WHO regional official said it was “difficult to say how long” work would be affected.
Allied Democratic Forces rebels attacked Congolese army positions and several neighborhoods of Beni on Saturday and into Sunday, Capt. Mak Hazukay Mongha told The Associated Press. The U.N. peacekeeping mission said its troops exchanged fire with rebels in Beni’s Mayangose area.
Angry over the killings, residents carried four of the bodies to the town hall, where police dispersed them with tear gas. Vehicles of aid organizations and the peacekeeping mission were pelted with stones, the U.N.-backed Radio Okapi reported.
The ADF rebels have killed hundreds of civilians in recent years and are just one of several militias active in Congo’s far northeast.
Last month, Ebola containment efforts were suspended for days in Beni after a deadly attack, complicating work to track suspected contacts of infected people. Since then, many of the new confirmed Ebola cases have been reported in Beni and the rate of new cases overall has more than doubled, alarming aid groups.
Health efforts in recent weeks had been starting to show results, and this new attack “will bring us back,” Dr. Michel Yao, the WHO incident manager for Ebola in North Kivu province, told the AP. Colleagues’ work in Beni was suspended on Sunday as residents protested and “a few of our cars were broken,” he said.
“Tomorrow, we don’t know yet,” Yao said, noting that the day after an attack is usually for burials and can be very tense. “We understand. We are sympathetic. It’s not easy to lose relatives. At the same time, it could affect the (outbreak) response.”
The overnight attack came after two medical agents with the Congolese army were shot dead by another rebel group — the first time health workers have been killed in this outbreak.
It is a “dark day” for everyone fighting Ebola, Congo’s health minister said.
Mai Mai rebels surged from the forest and opened fire on the unarmed agents with the army’s rapid intervention medical unit outside Butembo city, the ministry said.
The daytime attack appeared premeditated, with civilians left unharmed, the statement said. The medical agents had been placed in “dangerous zones” to assist national border health officials.
Confirmed Ebola cases have now reached 200, including 117 deaths.
Health workers in this outbreak, declared on Aug. 1, have described hearing gunshots daily, operating under the armed escort of U.N. peacekeepers or Congolese security forces and ending work by sundown to lower the risk of attack.
Community resistance is also a problem, and Congo’s health ministry has reported “numerous aggressions” against health workers. Early this month two Red Cross volunteers were severely injured in a confrontation with wary residents in a region traumatized by decades of fighting and facing an Ebola outbreak for the first time.
“Health agents are not a target for armed groups,” Health Minister Oly Ilunga said. “Our agents will continue to go into the field each day to fulfill the mission entrusted to them. They are true heroes and we will continue to take all necessary measures so that they can do their job safely.”
On Wednesday, WHO said it was “deeply concerned” by the outbreak but announced it does not yet warrant being declared a global emergency. An outbreak must be “an extraordinary event” that might cross borders, requiring a coordinated response. Confirmed cases have been found near the heavily traveled border with Uganda.
In the latest example of the rumors that pose another serious challenge to containing the virus, the health ministry said 22 youth in Butembo dug up the body of an Ebola victim and opened the body bag, “wanting to verify that no organs had been taken from the body by health workers.”
They ended up touching highly infectious bodily fluids, the ministry said. “The next day, they agreed to be vaccinated,” joining the more than 20,000 people who have received vaccinations so far.