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Congo villagers take up arms against LRA rebels

(Adds UN statements in paragraphs 12-14)

DUNGU, Congo, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Congolese villagers are forming self-defense groups to protect homes and families from Ugandan LRA rebels.

The rebels have killed 567 people and displaced 115,000 in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo's Oriental province since September, U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says.

Attacks surged after Ugandan forces spearheaded an anti-rebel offensive in December.

In silence broken only by the buzz of insects and the crunch of earth under their plastic sandals, eight men file through the cool night, hunting rifles in hand, scanning the darkness for those who killed their neighbors and burned their homes.

Elsewhere in the areas surrounding the town of Dungu, dozens more like them stalk the forest, mostly farmers and internal refugees armed with locally made guns or bows and arrows.

"This is very necessary for me, first and foremost, for the town, and for the people who are suffering in the bush, who have done nothing and who are dying," said Pascal Kalemba, the bottom half of his boyish face hidden by an airline sleeping mask.

Lord's Resistance Army rebel fighters attacked Dungu in September, as efforts to negotiate a peace deal to end their two-decade bush war against the Ugandan government broke down.

"They just walked straight into town. They started to burn houses and kill people," Kalemba said.

At the time, not a single Congolese soldier was deployed in the town of 57,000 inhabitants, located near Garamba National Park, the LRA's stronghold since it fled to Congo in 2005.

On Dec. 14, a Ugandan-led multinational force, including Congolese and South Sudanese soldiers, launched an offensive aiming to capture the rebels' reclusive leader Joseph Kony.

Instead, the operation splintered the rebels into smaller groups that are now attacking villages, slaughtering civilians, raping women and kidnapping children for use as sex slaves and child soldiers. The U.N. death toll may be conservative.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says three days of raids alone, starting on Christmas Day, killed at least 600 people. Most were beaten to death with clubs or hacked with machetes.

The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the recent rebel attacks in a statement and emphasized that those responsible must be brought to justice.

U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes also called on the LRA to cease hostilities, sign a peace agreement and release all abductees. Kony has repeatedly snubbed mediators by failing to show up at pre-arranged meetings to sign the agreement.

Holmes said the mandate for Joaquim Chissano, the U.N. special envoy for LRA-affected areas, has been renewed for another year to try and secure a political settlement of the conflict. Chissano's mandate expired Dec. 31.

ARMY "RUNS AWAY"

The head of Dungu's self-defense force, former chief Etienne Dalafata, said despite the deployment of over 3,500 government troops to the area, villages must defend themselves.

"We've already gone on operations with the army, but when we go into the bush they get scared and run away. They are city soldiers," he said.

Dalafata said his force enjoys the town's support and that militias have sprung up across Congo's northern borderlands.

All of this worries Felicien Balani, president of Dungu's local civil society association.

"Our army must make them unnecessary. They find their justification in its ineffectiveness. If this lasts another six months or a year, they'll start looking for better equipment, and we risk a Mai Mai phenomenon," he said.

Mai Mai ethnic militias sprang up across eastern Congo in the 1990s during invasions by Rwanda and proxy rebel groups.

Like Dalafata's men, the Mai Mai initially said they took up arms to protect their communities. But they became notorious for bloody massacres of civilians, rape, and ritual cannibalism.

Since September, the Dungu militia has taken just three LRA prisoners from a number of clashes with the Ugandan rebels.

All, they said, were turned over to the army.

But this week a self-defense patrol in Nzope village on the eastern edge of Garamba caught two LRA suspects. It mutilated and killed one before handing the other over to the authorities.

In Dungu, Kalemba said he feels no hatred for these latest invaders. He simply wants them to go home.

"Why are they persecuting us? Why?" he said.

"If it comes to a battle, we will die together." (Editing by Alistair Thomson and Elizabeth Piper) (Additional reporting by Megan Davies at the United Nations)

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