UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations has given the Democratic Republic of the Congo four more days to begin prosecuting soldiers accused of raping scores of women in an eastern town or it will halt support to two battalions, the world body said on Thursday.
The United Nations said 126 women were raped in Minova in November after Congolese troops fled to the town as so-called M23 rebels briefly captured the nearby provincial capital of Goma.
The U.N. special envoy to Congo, Roger Meece, informed Congolese authorities in a March 25 letter that they had seven days to take action.
"The letter informed the Congolese Government of the termination of all MONUSCO support to the two battalions involved in the Minova rapes, should not appropriate action be taken immediately, within 7 days," a spokesman for the U.N. department of peacekeeping said.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, has a mandate to protect civilians and supports operations by the Congolese army. There are more than 17,000 troops in Congo, a country the size of Western Europe.
The United Nations had previously told Congo that it would end support to two battalions linked to the Minova rapes if it did not try the soldiers involved.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in December that alleged human rights abuses were committed in and around Minova between November 20 and November 30, including the 126 rapes and the killing of two civilians. Nesirky said at the time that two soldiers were charged with rape, while seven more were charged with looting.
Peacekeepers have been stretched thin by the M23 rebellion in the resource-rich east of Congo and the U.N. Security Council is considering creating a special intervention force, which one senior council diplomat has said would be able to "search and destroy" the M23 rebels and other armed groups in the country.
M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal. That deal ended a previous rebellion and led to the rebels' integration into the army, but they have since deserted.
M23, which a U.N. expert panel said last year was backed by Rwanda, has struggled with infighting in recent weeks.
African leaders signed a U.N.-mediated accord late last month aimed at ending two decades of conflict in eastern Congo and paving the way for the intervention force. The U.N. Security Council plans to approve the intervention force later on Thursday.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Vicki Allen)