More than 50 civilians were killed when machete-wielding militiamen attacked a site for displaced people in strife-torn eastern DR Congo, sources said.

Fifty-two people, some of them children, were killed, a source with the UN's peacekeeping mission MONUSCO said, adding that 36 were wounded. The Congolese government, which spoke of a "crime against humanity", also said "about 50" people had died.

Local officials and civil society sources put the toll at more than 50 dead, while a respected monitor, the US-based Kivu Security Tracker (KST), said "at least" 40 were killed.

The army's spokesman in Ituri province, Lieutenant Jules Ngongo, gave provisional figures of 21 dead.

"The massacre of defenceless civilians is a crime against humanity," he said.

The KST said the suspected attackers, carrying "edged weapons", were from a notorious armed group called CODECO, blamed for a string of ethnic massacres in the area.

Violence in Ituri province has forced 1.5 million to flee their homes since 2017. Pictured: the Rhoo camp for displaced people, 60 kilometres from provincial capital Bunia
Violence in Ituri province has forced 1.5 million to flee their homes since 2017. Pictured: the Rhoo camp for displaced people, 60 kilometres from provincial capital Bunia AFP / ALEXIS HUGUET

The communication ministry said in a tweet that regular army troops "stopped" the attack, while MONUSCO tweeted that its peacekeepers helped quell the attack, which took place in the Djugu area near Lake Albert.

The area is the theatre of a bloody, long-running feud between the Lendu and Hema communities.

Fighting between the two groups flared between 1999 and 2003, claiming tens of thousands of lives before being quelled by a European Union peacekeeping force, Artemis.

Violence then resumed in 2017, blamed on the emergence of CODECO -- the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) -- which claims to defend the Lendu.

Since then, CODECO attacks have caused hundreds of deaths and prompted more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes, while half of the region's population faces food insecurity, according to the Danish Refugee Council.

The latest assault targeted the Plaine Savo camp for displaced peple, where more than 24,000 took refuge following violence in Djugu in 2019, the Norwegian Refugee Council said.

Raids on camps for displaced people over an eight-day period in November-December left 123 dead, according to the KST.

Ituri province and Djugu territory
Ituri province and Djugu territory AFP / Sophie RAMIS

Jean Richard Dhedda Lenga, the senior administrator in Bahema Badjere district, said CODECO raiders attacked the site "at around 9pm, 10pm" on Tuesday.

"We have a provisional total of 59 dead" and around 40 wounded," he told AFP by phone.

"I have just left the area -- young people are looking for other bodies in huts and in the bush."

Desire Malo Dra, a representative of civil society groups in Bahema Badjere, said most of the casualties were women and children.

"I have counted 53 bodies, others are coming in, they are all being gathered here where I am," he said.

"The militiamen came armed with machetes. Many victims had their throats cut," he said.

He added that the assailants "carried out their work calmly", and the army arrived hours later, on Wednesday morning.

MONUSCO said on Twitter that its peacekeepers "arrived on the scene to stop the killing and repel the attackers."

The UN's children's agency UNICEF said at least 15 children were among the dead, and more than 30 children were wounded.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which, like other NGOs and organisations, strongly condemned the massacre, said in a statement that the Plaine Savo camp housed more than 24,000 people "who fled the violence in the territory of Djugu in 2019".

Ituri and neighbouring North Kivu province were placed last year under a "state of siege", a measure giving exceptional powers to the army and police.

In addition to attacks by CODECO, the region is struggling to contain the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the most brutal of an estimated 122 armed groups that roam eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.