The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group that claims its 22-year armed uprising is aimed at installing rule under the biblical Ten Commandments in Uganda, gave the people of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo a horrifying Christmas gift when it hacked to death 400 people, including 150 inside a Catholic church.

The simultaneous attacks on several villages in the Orientale province left a trail of bloody killings, abductions and torching of villages, according to Caritas Congo, the local affiliate of the international Catholic umbrella group Caritas Internationalis.

"Caritas is shocked by reports of a series of massacres in [the Democratic Republic of] Congo carried out by Ugandan rebels on Christmas Day and the days following," Caritas said in a statement.

Those who were killed were part of 6,500 people who had sought refuge in churches when the rebels attacked the villages. Caritas director Dungu-Doruma said the rebels attacked a Christmas Day concert organized by the Catholic Church in Faradje and returned the following day to continue the killings.

'Cut into pieces'

"The scene at the church was unbelievable. It was horrendous. On the floor were dead bodies of mostly women and children cut into pieces," a Ugandan army spokesman Chris Magezi said.

The rebels denied involvement in the massacre. Speaking from Nairobi, Kenya, LRA spokesman David Matsanga said claims of the group's involvement was a propaganda ploy by the Ugandan government.

"I have it on good authority from the field commanders that the LRA is not in those areas where the killings are reported to have taken place," he told The Associated Press. He said the massacre may have been carried out by Ugandan soldiers.

"They were airlifted to Congo to kill civilians and then say we are responsible. They want to justify their stay in DRC Congo and loot minerals," he said.

Despite denials of involvement by the LRA, one of the survivors of the massacre, Abel Longi, told journalists he recognized the rebels by their dreadlocked hair, their Acholi language and the number of young boys among them.

"I hid in a bush near the church and heard people wailing as they were being cut with machetes," he said.

Sowing terror

St. Joseph Sister Marie-Bernard Alima, executive director of the Congolese bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, told Catholic News Service that her organization's priority is to ensure the survivors receive medical attention.

"There are many people who were wounded by machete in the attacks; several people suffered amputations," she said.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) condemned the violence and called for the Congolese army to intervene in a manner that respects humanitarian law. A U.N. spokesman said 120 homes were set ablaze in the area and thousands have fled fearing more attacks.

In response to the massacre, MONUC airlifted Congolose soldiers to Faradje. The United Nations is also assisting the Congolese army in setting up defensive positions.

"We have a two-pronged approach to stop these killings. We guard civilian settlements, while another force pursues the rebels," Magezi said, adding that the Ugandan army sent more troops to the area.

The Congo massacre is believed to be retaliation after Uganda, South Sudan and Congolese armies launched a joint offensive on the LRA base in mid-December. The decision to launch the offensive was taken after the LRA refused to sign a peace deal they negotiated with the Ugandan government last year. The rebels, whose top commanders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity, insist that the indictments must be withdrawn before they can agree to sign the peace deal.

The LRA, whose leader, Joseph Kony, was a Catholic altar boy before forming the group in 1986, has perpetrated terror in northern Uganda where it has engaged in guerrilla hit-and-run warfare. It has been torching villages, raping women, killing thousands and abducting children who are made child soldiers and sex slaves.

Despite Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's vow to defeat the rebels militarily, the group has remained elusive because it operates from thick forests inside Sudan and Congo from where it launches periodic attacks. The Catholic Church in Uganda was instrumental in convincing the government and the rebels to negotiate a peace deal, which has now crumbled.

David Karanja writes from Kenya.