By Peter Jones
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of Congo is seeking to locate a group of militia fighters who surrendered to the Congolese army, after their leader was killed in custody.
Militia leader Paul Sadala, also known as "Morgan", died on Monday in disputed circumstances two days after surrendering with around 40 of his followers whom the U.N. mission now wants to locate.
A spokesman for Congo's U.N. mission (MONUSCO) said a team would travel to Morgan's stronghold in Orientale province to locate the surrendered fighters whom the government says are in army custody in the militia leader's remote village.
"We will only be looking into the whereabouts of Morgan's men," said MONUSCO spokesman Charles Bambara.
However, a U.N. official with knowledge of the mission told Reuters that the investigation would also attempt to establish how Morgan died.
"There is a worry that other warlords will not come forward to surrender because it is unclear what happened to Morgan," said the official, who asked not to be named.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said late on Monday that Morgan was shot during an escape attempt and bled to death while being flown to hospital in a U.N. helicopter.
But that version of events was denied by MONUSCO's military spokesman, Colonel Felix Basse, who said: "When we received Morgan he was already dead. The operation up to that point had been entirely led by the Congolese army."
Mende conceded on Tuesday that Morgan had died before reaching the U.N. helicopter, adding that he only had seven of his men with him when they attacked the Congolese soldiers guarding them, sparking a gun battle. Four of his fighters and two soldiers were also killed, he said.
Mende said the more than 30 remaining militia, who were not with Morgan at the time, remained under guard in the village.
Morgan's militia - accused by U.N. experts of rape, kidnapping, looting, torture and cannibalism - is just one part of a complex and deadly network of armed groups in Congo's mineral-rich east.
The army has launched a series of operations over the past year aimed at stamping out the armed groups that continue to compete for control of swathes of territory more than a decade after the official end of a 1998-2003 war.
(Reporting by Peter Jones; Editing by Joe Bavier and Robin Pomeroy)