/ 4 November 2009

DRC army accused of mass slaughter

A top human rights group is accusing the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) military of killing more than 500 civilians in eastern DRC, and says the United Nations peacekeeping force in the area did nothing to stop the soldiers from decapitating men and raping young girls.

The Human Rights Watch report came a day after the UN peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym Monuc, said it was suspending military aid to an army unit implicated in the deaths of 62 civilians between May and September.

Human Rights Watch said the UN peacekeeping force should immediately suspend its aid to the entire operation.

”Some Congolese army soldiers are committing war crimes by viciously targeting the very people they should be protecting,” said Anneke van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. ”Monuc’s continued willingness to provide support for such abusive military operations implicates them in violations of the laws of war.”

The report, released on Monday, was based on HRW fact-finding missions to the region and said that soldiers in eastern DRC had deliberately killed at least 505 civilians between March and September. It said another 198 civilians were killed earlier this year during a joint Congolese-Rwandan military operation.

”If it’s true that people were killed, the investigation will determine that,” government spokesperson Lambert Mende said on Tuesday.

”One has seen in the past how Human Rights Watch exaggerated.”

In New York, UN spokesperson Michele Montas told reporters at UN headquarters on Tuesday that the Congolese Armed Forces command and MOonuc are launching an immediate investigation to determine who is responsible and to take the necessary action.

”We condemn these killings and all killing and abuse of civilians, whether by the Congolese Armed Forces or by armed groups,” Montas said.

The UN peacekeeping mission started backing the Congolese army earlier this year in its effort to oust Rwandan Hutu militiamen, many of whom fled to DRC after participating in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide that killed more than 500 000 people.

The UN supports the DRC army with transport, food, and fuel. UN officials have repeatedly told HRW that they joined the military operation because they believed their participation could help minimise harm to civilians, the report said.

”What we are trying to do in the logistic support that we’ve given to the national army is instil this policy of zero tolerance in order to help minimise violent acts against the population,” Ross Mountain, the UN’s deputy mission chief in DRC, said on Tuesday.

Mountain said that Monuc and the Congolese government were trying to identify the units and areas where the killings were committed and what measures should be taken.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain le Roy said on Sunday that the UN would immediately cease support to the Congolese army’s 213th Brigade. Le Roy said the UN believed the unit had killed at least 62 civilians in the Lukweti area, about 80km north-west of the regional capital of Goma.

The HRW report describes an August attack in the remote hamlet of Katanda in which it said soldiers decapitated four men and cut off their arms. They then raped 16 women and girls, including a 12-year-old girl, later killing four of them, the report said.

Researchers also found that many of the more than 500 victims were women, children and the elderly. Some were hacked to death with machetes or clubbed to death, the report said.

DRC’s army is a ragtag, poorly paid collection of the defeated army of ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and several of the rebel groups that helped overthrow him. — Sapa-AP