Exclusive: U.N. support for Congo campaign against Rwanda rebels in doubt over abuses

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 30, 2015 7:34 PM

By Michelle Nichols and Aaron Ross

UNITED NATIONS/KINSHASA (Reuters) - United Nations support for a planned military operation against Rwandan rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could be in doubt because Congo named a general accused of rights abuses to head the offensive, diplomats and officials said on Friday.

General Bruno Mandevu was appointed on Sunday to head a Congolese army (FARDC) operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which had been jointly planned with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO).

Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mandevu had been placed by MONUSCO on a so-called red list over accusations of 121 rights violations, including summary executions and rapes.

"If, because of the past record of units or their commanders, there are substantial grounds to believe there is a real risk that they commit grave human rights violations, support to those units will be withheld unless adequate mitigating measures can be put in place," a senior MONUSCO official told Reuters.

"In this particular case, this process has brought to light some concerns that have been brought to the attention of the DRC government. Discussions are underway at the highest level to address them," the official said.

During a U.N.-backed offensive against the FDLR in 2009, Congolese soldiers were accused by rights groups of massacring hundreds of civilians and committing wide-ranging abuses. The Congolese army denied the scale of the alleged abuses.

The FARDC and the Congolese government were not immediately available for comment.

A U.N. peacekeeping official in New York said that under the United Nations human rights due diligence policy, the world body has to "ensure that its support to non-U.N. security forces will not contribute to grave human rights violations."

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo threatened in 2013 to withdraw support for two Congolese battalions accused of involvement in the mass rape. The mission decided to keep working with the battalions after 12 senior officers, including the commanders and deputy commanders, were suspended and about a dozen soldiers were charged over the rapes in Minova.

U.N. peacekeepers and Congolese troops completed preparatory work for the offensive against the FDLR earlier this month and were waiting for Congolese President Joseph Kabila to sign off on a joint military plan so combat operations could start.

But during a meeting on Sunday with MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler and envoys from the United States, Britain, France, Belgium and the European Union, Kabila said that it would be an FARDC operation and not a joint campaign with the United Nations, said diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said Kabila told Kobler and the envoys that FARDC Chief of Staff Didier Etumba would provide a revised operations plan to tackle the FDLR, a group that includes former soldiers and Hutu militiamen responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

"It is not a joint operation, it is one that is being led by the FARDC with support from MONUSCO," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters earlier on Friday.

"We will participate, provide support operationally, logistically and strategically. MONUSCO and the FARDC together will conduct regular joint evaluations of the operations," Dujarric said.

The FDLR failed to meet a January deadline to disarm and surrender. U.N. officials say there are an estimated 1,400 FDLR rebels still in eastern Congo.

"Operations v. FDLR must ensure protection of civilians, minimize civilian impact and track with U.N. human rights due diligence policy," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, tweeted on Thursday.

(Editing by Christian Plumb)