By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo who are reported to be 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 clashes that have forced at least 220,000 people to flee their homes.
U.N. experts say Rwandan officials have provided logistical support and troops to the M23 rebels, based around soldiers who defected from Congo's army, although Rwanda rejects the claims.
Efforts to tackle the crisis appear to be stalling, with the U.N.'s peacekeeping head saying on Monday that the deployment of a neutral force to tackle the rebels remained only "a concept".
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that at least 33 of M23's own fighters had been executed for trying to desert, while 15 civilians had also 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 in the report, which both M23 and Rwanda's government said was inaccurate.
HRW said it had conducted nearly 200 interviews and found evidence that at least 46 women and girls 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, HRW said.
HRW also said that at least 600 men and boys had been forcibly or unlawfully recruited in Rwanda, even after an interim U.N. report in June alleged Rwandan complicity.
"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
M23's spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama denied that the group had carried out attacks on civilians and accused HRW of failing to conduct proper research.
"We reject the report in its entirety," he said.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo also dismissed the picture painted by HRW.
"This kind of report, based on the flimsiest imaginable evidence, is not only unhelpful, it is dangerous. The situation on the ground is volatile but improving," she said.
Rwanda's leaders have repeatedly denied involvement in the rebellion, and have accused the U.N. team behind the report of bias. But that has not prevented several international partners, including the United States and Sweden, from suspending aid.
A recent lull in fighting prompted Britain to unblock some financial aid to Rwanda, saying it was engaged in the search for a solution.
But in his message to regional leaders at a conference over the weekend, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the humanitarian situation remained dire, and that he was "deeply concerned by continuing reports of external support to the M23".
The 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 Herve Ladsous, the U.N. under secretary general in charge of peacekeeping, poured cold water on the idea of direct U.N. backing for a neutral force, which both Congo and Rwanda have agreed to in principle.
"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," he told journalists in Kinshasa.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Kevin Liffey)