By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo troops raped at least 97 women and 33 girls, some as young as six, in the country's volatile east after they fled from advancing M23 rebels in late November, according to a U.N. report released on Wednesday.
The majority of the rapes by the Congolese army (FARDC) occurred in the eastern town of Minova during a two-day period, and most cases documented by U.N. Joint Human Rights Office followed the same pattern, the report said.
"FARDC soldiers entered houses, usually in groups of three to six and, after threatening the inhabitants, looted whatever they could find," the Joint Human Rights Office, which is part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, wrote in its report on abuses in eastern Congo between November 15 and December 2.
"One or two of the soldiers would leave with the looted goods and at least one would stand guard as the remaining FARDC soldiers raped women and girls in the house," the report, based on more than 350 testimonies, said. "Most victims were raped by more than one soldier."
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters the authorities were determined to punish the culprits.
"Military reforms are underway and we've also taken very severe action against those who were involved, either directly or indirectly," he said, speaking from the capital Kinshasa.
Twelve senior officers, including the commanders and deputy commanders of the 41st and 391st battalions, have been suspended over the Minova incidents and "were to be put at the disposal of military justice authorities," the U.N. paper added.
The 391st battalion was trained by the United States in 2010 as "a model for future reforms within the Congolese armed forces," according to the U.S. Africa Command website.
The U.S. Defense Department said last month it condemned the crimes in Minova "irrespective of which unit is accused" and that U.S. training included teaching respect for human rights and prevention of gender-based violence.
The report said the United Nations threatened on February 4 to withdraw support for battalions 41 and 391 over the accusations of rights abuses in Minova but decided to continue working with them after the commanders and deputy commanders were suspended.
M23 REBELS ACCUSED AS WELL
After provincial capital Goma and the town of Sake fell to M23 rebels, the report said thousands of Congolese troops fled in a disorganized manner toward Minova, where they "committed mass rape and other acts of sexual violence, as well as cases of arbitrary execution, mistreatment and systematic looting."
A further 11 Congolese soldiers have been arrested and are awaiting trial in relation to incidents in Minova, although the U.N. report said only two of them face charges of rape and another two are accused of murder.
The arrest of a "select few" soldiers would not cure the underlying problems that lead to regular human rights abuses by the Congolese army, known as one of the most brutal and ill disciplined in the world - said Samuel Dixon, policy advisor for Oxfam in the eastern city of Goma.
"When soldiers are free to extort, rape and abuse the population as they please, local people are condemned to live in constant fear of any man in uniform," Dixon added.
The U.N. report also documented widespread looting, at least 11 arbitrary executions and 59 cases of sexual violence carried out by rebels during the M23 occupation of Goma and Sake
"The victims, mostly wives of FARDC soldiers who had fled during the M23 advance, were raped," the report said.
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.
(Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa; Editing by Philip Barbara and Andrew Heavens)