More than 100 demobilised fighters and their relatives have allegedly died of starvation and disease in a camp in Democratic Republic of Congo.
They were moved to an isolated army camp in the north-west last year after surrendering in the volatile east, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
They received minimal food and health supplies, some apparently surviving on crops stolen from farmers’ fields.
Defence Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo said the accusations were irresponsible.
There had, he told the BBC, been problems funding the government’s demobilisation programme.
“We did not purposely leave people to die,” he said, adding that international donors had failed to deliver aid.
“Many ambassadors and UN staff have already visited the camp and everyone agrees that access is difficult, which is why the conditions are bad.”
The UN says it is now sending teams to the area to evaluate the needs of the camp and will provide help shortly.
Numerous armed groups are still active in eastern DR Congo, despite the end of the civil war more than a decade ago. Militias are able to make money from the region’s minerals, some of which are used to make mobile phones.
According to HRW, 941 fighters from various armed groups surrendered and were sent to the Kotakoli camp in September last year along with several hundred family members to await integration into military or civilian life.
This was expected to take about three months, but a year on they remain at the camp.
Supplies ran out after three months – and then getting more provisions proved difficult because the area is surrounded by dense forest and is almost inaccessible by road.
With little to eat and virtually no healthcare, many people became ill and reportedly died from malnutrition and disease.
Research by HRW at the camp in September found 42 demobilised combatants, at least five women and 57 children had died since December.
“People lost so much weight it was like you could see into their stomachs,” a 44-year-old former fighter told HRW. “The children were really like skeletons,”
A 28-year-old, who had been part of an armed group in North Kivu, said that people looked like the “photos of the famine in Somalia and Ethiopia”.
A father, also 28, told HRW about how his nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old daughter had become ill and died: “There was no food and I didn’t have the means to find [food] for my family.
“I helplessly watched them dying.”
The army commander has allowed the disarmed militia members to go into Kotakoli village to try to find food and menial work, but HRW says the remoteness of the area means there is little means of survival.
“Before more people die, the government should immediately move them to a place where they have food and healthcare and are treated with basic human decency,” Ida Sawyer, a senior researcher for HRW in DR Congo,said in a statement.
She also called for the UN peacekeeping mission to play a larger role in the programme to demobilise fighters.