(Adds World Health Organization comment)
BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec 7 (Reuters) - S uspected militiamen have killed at least 18 civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, near the epicentre of an Ebola outbreak, the army said on Friday.
Repeated attacks by armed groups on civilians, Congolese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers have hampered efforts to contain the epidemic, the second worst in history. The latest violence has had no immediate impact on the Ebola response, the World Health Organization said.
Army spokesman Captain Mak Hazukay said the civilians were killed on Thursday night in two separate incidents near the town of Beni.
"They killed some of them and took others hostage ... dragged them into the suburbs, where they burned down a house and savagely executed the hostages," he said.
A Reuters witness saw the bullet-riddled bodies of five women on the outskirts of Beni. Hazukay, also present at the scene, said another 13 bodies were lying in the woods nearby.
WHO emergency response chief Peter Salama told Reuters the organisation was aware of the attacks.
"So far we haven't seen any direct implication for the Ebola response," he said. "We are working very much with local community groups to prevent a community reaction that impacts our response."
A local civil society leader, Kizito Bin Hangi, said the attacks were carried out by militants belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist group active in the area.
Congolese authorities blame ADF rebels for dozens of attacks over the past four years that have killed more than 1,000 civilians, although independent experts say other armed groups and Congolese soldiers are responsible for some of the killings.
The attacks have undermined health authorities' ability to reach patients and others exposed to Ebola. Mistrust of first responders has also led some locals to refuse treatment or safe burials, aggravating the outbreak.
So far, the outbreak is believed to have infected 471 people and killed 273 of them. Congo's health ministry announced 13 new confirmed cases on Thursday, one of the highest one-day totals since the outbreak was declared in August. (Reporting by Fiston Mahamba and Goran Tomasevic; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Sofia Christensen and Alessandra Prentice; editing by Larry King)
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