LUANDA, Angola — First, the river turned red. Then dead fish by the ton floated up to the surface. Then thousands of people started getting sick.

Now, 12 people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what researchers have called “an unprecedented environmental and human disaster” along the Kasai River, a southern tributary of the mighty Congo River.

Researchers and officials with the Congolese government say that the cause was a toxic leak upstream, from the biggest diamond mine in Angola, run by Catoca, a joint venture owned by Endiama, the Angolan state mining company, and the Russian mining giant Alrosa.

The company admitted in a statement last month that there was a leak from its facility, but said that it was only water and sand — not anything toxic.

in a news conference on Thursday.

“It’s a total destruction of ecosystems, especially aquatic biodiversity,” said Ms. Bazaiba, who traveled to the region.

She said people living near the water noticed around July 26 that something strange was happening on the Tshikapa River, which flows northward from Angola, where it is spelled Chicapa, then into Congo, emptying into the Kasai.

At first, they thought small-scale diamond miners were causing the problem, she said. But then, on July 31, the situation grew worse.

“They noticed that there were dead fish. Lots of dead fish — tons and tons of them, floating on the river,” Ms. Bazaiba

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