The United Nations on Friday named two Congolese army colonels who appear to be blocking an investigation of soldiers accused of mass gang-raping at least 47 women in eastern Congo, and said if the attackers are not identified the officers themselves should stand trial for the crimes committed by the troopers under their command.
Government troops carried out the mass rapes in the remote and mountainous villages of Bushani and Kalambahiro in North Kivu province from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1, according to witnesses and victims cited in the report from the U.N. human rights office.
A Congolese military spokesman called the report premature and said they had not concluded their own investigation.
The incident occurred when 100 soldiers attacked villagers with whips, machetes and rifles, accusing the inhabitants of supporting rebels, the report said.
Those raped were aged from 16 to 65 and included pregnant women. Some were raped in front of their children. Some were raped by two to four men, the report said.
It said the actual number of victims probably is much higher than 47, since many villagers remain hidden in the forest or other towns for fear of another attack, and since many victims do not report being raped for fear of being rejected by their husbands and communities.
The report said the Congolese military has failed to fully cooperate with investigators, hindering attempts to prosecute the attackers.
It said five battalions were operating in the area at the time and identified two colonels in command.
Col. Chuma Balumisa was commander of the operational area including the attacked villages, and Col. Bobo Kakudji was commander of overall operations in North Kivu.
"Given their hierarchical position, they should have been aware of the troops' movements ... and should therefore be able to identify the battalions responsible for the violations," the report said.
As the identity of the soldiers responsible has been impossible to establish, the colonels "themselves could be considered responsible for the actions committed by their soldiers," the report continued.
"The judicial authorities handling the case should prosecute them on the basis of the relevant provisions of the law of armed conflict."
Congolese military spokesman Col. Sylvain Ekenge said army officials were working with U.N. officials in the area to investigate the rapes.
"We can't act on simple allegations. After investigations, if any of the troops are found responsible we will not hesitate to punish them."
He added: "We are surprised by the publication of this report, because we are investigating and await the conclusions."
But the tone of the U.N. report indicated great frustration that, more than six months after the crimes were committed, no suspect has been charged.
Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, welcomed the report, saying it not only establishes what took place on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 but makes recommendations on how to improve protection for civilians and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
She said "most worrying" is the limited cooperation between the Congolese army and military justice, "which seriously risks impeding the efforts to fight impunity."
"An army turning on its own people cannot be left unchecked or unpunished," Wallstrom said in a statement. "Primary responsibility rests with the Congolese authorities for investigating this incident, pursuing the perpetrators and bringing them to justice."
President Joseph Kabila last year declared a "zero-tolerance" policy for rapists, but most continue to get away with the crime.
In a landmark trial in February, the first commanding officer ever charged with mass rape was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for crimes against humanity. Those rapes also took place over New Year's Day.
But a year after the worst case of mass gang rapes ever reported in Congo _ when at least 387 people were raped over four days in July and early August 2010 _ only one suspect has been indicted, the U.N. complained earlier this month.
Congo's minister of justice and human rights, Luzolo Bambi, responded that he has given orders for criminal proceedings into those rapes and that several people including an army general are being held while investigations proceed.
Earlier this month the U.N. implicated government troops in the rape of at least 121 women over a three-day period June 11-13 in the village of Nyakiele in South Kivu province.
At least two studies have shown that government soldiers are responsible for at least 60 percent of reported rapes in the Central African nation.
Friday's report noted the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said in January that "the Congolese army remains responsible for a significant number of human rights violations, including sexual violence."
Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende responded by denying any responsibility of the army for such violations.
Rape has long been used as a brutal weapon of war in eastern Congo, where soldiers and various militia groups use sexual violence to intimidate, punish and control the population. The region has been wracked by violence since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled conflict across the border.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in June concluded that more than 1,000 women are raped in Congo every day.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva. Faul contributed reporting from Johannesburg.