By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - An army battalion in the Democratic Republic of Congo, some of whose members have been accused of mass rape, was trained by the United States, a senior U.N. envoy said on Tuesday.
The United Nations said 126 women were raped in Minova in Congo's volatile east in November after Congolese army troops fled to the town when M23 rebels briefly captured the nearby provincial capital, Goma.
"We do know in the U.N. which are the two battalions. Interestingly, one of them was trained by the Americans - that's what the American ambassador himself told me," said U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, referring to the U.S. ambassador in Kinshasa.
The U.S. Defense Department said it condemned the crimes in Minova "irrespective of which unit is accused" and that all U.S. training in Congo included teaching respect for human rights and prevention of gender-based violence.
"In addition to calling for an appropriate judicial response, we are in the process of carefully evaluating the implications of these reports for all U.S. training and military support in the DRC," it said in a statement. "The United States intends to remain engaged in security sector reform efforts in the DRC, but we recognize there are huge challenges and risks."
According to a U.S. Department of Defense Africa Command website, the United States trained a 750-strong light infantry battalion in Congo in 2010 as part of a train-and-equip program to help Kinshasa reform the country's army.
Bangura, who took up her U.N. role in September, has visited Congo, where she said she met with the general in charge of the units accused of raping the women in Minova.
"He told me there, categorically, that already 33 military, including officers, had already been identified and they're in the process of taking necessary action," she told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
U.N. STILL SUPPORTING UNITS
The United Nations said last week that Congo had suspended a dozen senior military officers and was interrogating suspects in connection with the mass rape.
"The challenge that the U.N. had was that the claim was that they couldn't tell (who was responsible) because this was a situation where the military was in disarray, there was no command structure," Bangura said.
"The position of the U.N. was then 'all the commanders are responsible if you can't give me the men,'" she said.
The United Nations previously told Congo it would end support to two battalions linked to the Minova rapes if it did not try the soldiers involved.
The United Nations said in a statement on Tuesday it was still supporting the two battalions "in view of a number of recent and appropriate actions being taken by the authorities."
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in December that human rights abuses were reported 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 and seven with looting.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, has a mandate to protect civilians and support operations by the Congolese army. There are more than 17,000 U.N. troops in Congo, a country the size of Western Europe.
Peacekeepers have been stretched thin by the M23 rebellion in the resource-rich eastern Congo. The U.N. Security Council last month established a special intervention force, which one senior council diplomat has said would be able to conduct "search and destroy" operations against the M23 rebels and other armed groups in the country.
African leaders signed a U.N.-mediated accord in February aimed at ending two decades of conflict in eastern Congo and paving the way for the intervention force approved last month.
(Editing by David Brunnstrom and Mohammad Zargham)