More than 15,000 people were raped in the volatile eastern region of Congo last year, according to the best data available, the top U.N. envoy in the African nation said Friday.
Roger Meece, who heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, said the scale of the security problems in the east, including sexual attacks, is "enormous."
Meece told the U.N. Security Council that the "horrific" mass rapes in late July and early August by rebel militias in eastern Congo's mineral-rich Walikale region underscored the importance of protecting civilians.
But he told reporters after the briefing that it's impossible for 18,000 U.N. peacekeepers to protect all civilians in the area where armed groups are operating _ an area larger than Afghanistan.
The U.N. force "cannot serve as the complete answer to the security problems of the east," Meece said. "The scale of the problem is enormous."
Somewhat different but equally troubling figures were provided by the U.N. Population Fund, which determined there were 17,507 sexual violence attacks throughout Congo in 2009 _ including more than 9,000 in North and South Kivu which have been at the center of the conflict in the east.
The scale of rapes and sexual violence hasn't diminished much this year, according to the fund, known as UNFPA, which collects data in Congo.
There were 7,685 attacks in Congo between January and June, including more than 4,500 in the Kivus, according to the fund.
UNFPA spokesman Abubakar Dungus said 5,427 of the sexual attacks this year _ about 70 percent _ were perpetrated "by men in uniform." It was unclear if he was referring to soldiers, militiamen or others.
In another indication of the scale of the problem, UNFPA said that as a result of the establishment of special protection units for women and children in the Kivus and Kasai Oriental province in south-central Congo, more than 15,000 sexual violence survivors have received medical care. It gave no time frame.
Meece appeared a day after Margot Wallstrom, who is responsible for U.N. efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict, told council members that Congolese government troops are raping and killing civilians and looting villages in the Walikale area.
She said the possibility that communities that were recently brutalized by Rwandan Hutu rebels and Mai-Mai elements are now suffering at the hands of the Congolese army "is unimaginable and unacceptable."
Meece said Congolese army operations are under way in the Walikale region, primarily directed against the Mai-Mai and rebels from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda. But he said he didn't know if the army soldiers were involved in rapes.
The United Nations said 303 civilians _ 235 women, 13 men, 52 girls and 3 boys _ were raped in 13 villages in the Walikale area from July 30-Aug. 2. Even in eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard and some women have been sexually assaulted repeatedly over the years, such numbers are shocking.
In response to the mass rapes, Meece said U.N. peacekeepers are establishing some new temporary operating bases in the Walikale region and are instituting other measures to improve communications with remote villages and respond more quickly to sexual attacks.