DAKAR, Senegal — Killings, rapes and other violence by an armed ethnic group targeting rivals in Congo’s northeast may amount to crimes against humanity, the United Nations said Friday.

More than 700 people were killed and at least 168 injured during the fighting in mineral-rich Ituri province from December 2017 to September 2019, with the Hema herding community mostly targeted by members of the Lendu farming community, according to an investigation by the U.N. human rights office. At least 142 people were subjected to sexual violence, it said.

Lendu armed groups have become more organized in carrying out attacks against the Hema and those of other ethnic groups such as the Alur, the U.N. report said, with the objective of taking control of land and resources.

“The barbarity that characterizes these attacks – including the beheading of women and children with machetes, the dismemberment and removal of body parts of the victims as trophies of war – reflects the desire of the attackers to inflict lasting trauma to the Hema communities and to force them to flee and not return to their villages,” the report said.

“The violence documented … could contain some elements of crimes against humanity through murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillage and persecution,” it said.

The U.N. rights group called on Congolese authorities to address the root causes of the conflict and to strengthen the presence of state institutions and armed forces in the area.

Armed and police forces have failed to stop the violence since their deployment in February 2018, the report said, accusing some security forces of committing abuses such as extrajudicial executions, sexual violence and arbitrary detentions.

The U.N. also called for independent investigations into the violence.

Congo’s military has said it believes the Lendu community to be linked to Mathieu Ngudjolo, who was acquitted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in 2012.

Untold thousands of people lost their lives in fighting between the Lendu and Hema communities between 1999 and 2004. U.N. peacekeepers were sent to Congo to try to maintain order and remain in the region today combatting various rebel groups.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.