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KINSHASA (Reuters) - At least 30 people have been killed in two days of ethnic clashes between Hema herders and Lendu farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo's northeastern Ituri province, local authorities said on Monday.

Congo has been grappling with a fresh surge of unrest since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his mandate in December 2016. His decision emboldened several rebel groups and raised fears that the vast, mineral-rich country is sliding back into civil war.

The latest killings echo the violence of the 1998-2003 war, when thousands of Hema and Lendu killed each other in Ituri, and come after years of relative peace between the two groups.

"The Hema-Lendu conflict has claimed between 30 and 32 lives and left several people injured, thousands of huts burnt down and thousands displaced," the governor of Ituri, Jefferson Abdallah Penembaka, told Reuters.

"We are currently raising awareness in both communities so as not to dig up old demons," said Penembaka, adding that police and military presence had also been reinforced in the area.

Congolese army spokesman Captain Carlos Kalombo said he received reports that several houses had been burnt and human lives lost. He confirmed that the army had been deployed to the scene to prevent further killings.

The Hema community said in a statement published on Sunday that 23 people died in an attack led by Lendu militia in Djugu territory. The Lendu were not immediately available for comment and the army spokesman and local officials were unable to verify the Hema account.

Tensions between the Hema and Lendu are longstanding but the region had been relatively peaceful since provincial authorities began touring the area in December to raise awareness of the need for mutual co-existence.

(Reporting by Amedee Mwarabu and Fiston Mahamba; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Edward McAllister/Mark Heinrich)

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Reuters