By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo who allegedly are receiving support from neighboring Rwanda have committed widespread war crimes including dozens of rapes and killings, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Tuesday.
Congo's eastern hills - haunted by armed groups for nearly two decades - have seen six months of bloody clashes after hundreds of soldiers defected from the army, sparking a conflict that has forced at least 220,000 people to flee their homes.
United Nations experts say that Rwandan officials have provided logistical support and troops to the uprising, known as M23, although Kigali strongly rejects the claims.
Allegations of widespread human rights abuses by M23 come as efforts to find a solution to the crisis appear to be stalling, with the U.N.'s peacekeeping head saying the deployment of a neutral force to tackle the rebels remains "only a concept".
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Tuesday that at least 33 of M23's own fighters had been executed for trying to desert, while 15 civilians also had been deliberately killed in rebel held territories since June.
"The M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities in eastern Congo," Anneke van Woudenberg, HRW's senior Africa researcher, said.
The rights group said it had based its research on nearly 200 interviews and had uncovered evidence of at least 46 women and girls who had been raped.
One victim said that M23 fighters had burst into her home, beaten her son to death and repeatedly raped her before dousing her legs in petrol and setting her ablaze, the rights group said.
M23 did not respond to telephone calls and messages requesting comments on Monday night, but HRW said that M23's leader, Colonel Sultani Makenga, denied allegations of human rights abuses, including widespread forced recruitment.
"We recruit our brothers, not by force, but because they want to help us... That's their decision," Makenga is quoted as saying.
HRW also said that at least 600 men and boys have been forcibly or unlawfully recruited in neighboring Rwanda, with recruitment continuing after allegations of Rwandan complicity were published in an interim UN report in June.
"The United Nations Security Council should sanction M23 leaders, as well as Rwandan officials who are helping them, for serious rights abuses," van Woudenberg said.
NO NEUTRAL FORCE YET
Rwanda's leaders have denied any involvement in the M23 rebellion, and have accused the U.N. team behind the report of bias, but that has not stopped several international partners, including the United States and Sweden, from suspending aid to Kigali.
A recent lull in fighting has seen opinions as to the real situation on the ground diverging, with the UK restarting some of its blocked budget support, saying that Rwanda was constructively engaged in the search for a solution.
But in his message to regional leaders at a conference over the weekend, UN secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that the humanitarian situation remained dire, and that he was "deeply concerned by continuing reports of external support to the M23."
The regional meeting in Kampala, which Rwandan president Paul Kagame did not attend, failed to hammer out the details of a proposed neutral force to police the border between Congo and Rwanda, despite an offer of troops from Tanzania.
On Monday the U.N. under secretary general in charge of peacekeeping poured cold water on the idea of the world body providing direct backing for a neutral force, which has been agreed in principle by both Kinshasa and Kigali.
"I think the concept needs to be fleshed out... I would not think that the security council would be in a position to make a determination just on an idea," Herve Ladsous told journalists at a press conference in Kinshasa.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Bate Felix and Michael Roddy)