U.N. peacekeepers won't back Congolese soldiers accused of killing civilians

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NAIROBI -- The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo will suspend its support of Congolese army units accused of deliberately killing 62 civilians during a controversial military operation against rebels in eastern Congo, U.N. officials said Monday.

The decision follows a U.N. investigation that confirmed the killings, said Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the mission.

"By taking this position, it's a statement that [the U.N. mission] will no longer tolerate the Congolese army's violations of human rights against civilians," he said, adding that additional investigations are underway.

But leading human rights groups said Monday that the United Nations' decision is far too little, too late and that the 62 killings are only a fraction of the atrocities carried out by the famously ill-trained, predatory Congolese army. Soldiers are accused in more than 700 killings, including two massacres, gang rapes and incidents in which they reportedly forced villagers to haul supplies across the jungle and shot them dead if they fell out from exhaustion.

"Peacekeeping officials knew that war crimes were being committed by Congolese government forces, yet eight months into operations they are only now suspending the U.N.'s support to one of the army units responsible," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The U.N. mission "should immediately cease its support to all of [the operations] until abusive commanders are removed and effective measures are in place to protect the civilian population," she said.

The Congolese army operations began in January as part of a major rapprochement between Congo and neighboring Rwanda, and were intended to target Rwandan rebels who have fueled a complex 15-year-long conflict that has killed more than 5 million people.

Several thousand Rwandan soldiers initially took part, and when they left, the Congolese army began receiving help from the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which provided attack helicopters, trucks, food and other assistance. Amid criticism, top U.N. officials defended their support, saying that human rights violations would be even worse were they not involved. The United States provided diplomatic support and dispatched a small military team to aid the Congolese army.

But the operations, led by an alleged war criminal known as the Terminator, have been disastrous from the start.

While making questionable progress against the rebels -- about 1,200 out of 6,000 have been disarmed -- the operations have displaced more than 500,000 people. As a matter of strategy, the rebels and the army have brutalized villagers they accuse of supporting the wrong side. More than 1,000 civilians have been deliberately killed, and an already staggering epidemic of rape has worsened dramatically, with reported attacks doubling in some areas where the army is deployed.

According to Human Rights Watch, Congolese soldiers massacred children, women and the elderly, burning families inside their homes. Other victims were decapitated, chopped to death by machetes, fatally beaten or shot while trying to flee.

Around the time of some of those killings, the United Nations was drawing up a list of 15 Congolese army officers with dubious human rights records, but few have been prosecuted so far, and the U.N. support has continued.

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