By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday called on Rwanda to end support for M23 rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, saying there was evidence Rwandan military officials were involved.
It is the first response by Washington to recent M23 clashes with Congolese government forces near Goma, the largest city in the DRC's mineral-rich eastern region, but stayed clear of directly implicating Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a U.S. ally whose poverty-fighting programs are often heralded by donors.
"We call upon Rwanda to immediately end any support for the M23 (and) withdraw military personnel from eastern DRC," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The call comes two days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chairs a special session of the U.N. Security Council on Africa's Great Lakes region.
M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal.
A U.N. report in June this year said the M23 recruited fighters in Rwanda with the aid of sympathetic Rwandan army officers, while elements of the Congolese army have cooperated with the Rwandan Hutu rebel group FDLR.
The report prompted the United States and European states to suspend military assistance to Kigali.
Psaki said the latest concerns over M23 follow credible evidence from Human Rights Watch that said the rebels were to blame for executions, rapes and forcible recruitment of men and boys while receiving support from Rwanda.
The rights group acknowledged on Tuesday erroneous testimony in the report but said it stands by its conclusions. A statement by the group said the report contained an error based on the testimony of one of the sources it interviewed.
"It said the Rwandan soldiers had served with the peacekeeping contingent in Somalia and Darfur. In fact, Rwandan peacekeepers served in Darfur but not in Somalia," the statement said.
It said, however, that more than 50 witnesses had confirmed the key findings of its report about continuing Rwandan support for the M23.
Rwanda rejected the group's allegations, saying that the inclusion of incorrect testimony undermined the report. Rwanda also accused Human Rights Watch of paying for witness testimony, a charge the group had denied.
It is not the first time that the United States has called on Rwanda to stop supporting the M23 rebels. A year ago, the United States made the same call after a U.N. investigation implicated senior Kigali officials in supporting M23.
The U.N. investigation provided the strongest evidence yet that officials from Kagame's government were providing military and logistical support to armed groups in Congo.
A 17,000-strong U.N. force, known as MONUSCO, and Congo troops have struggled in the past decade to stem a conflict involving dozens of armed groups and complicated by national and ethnic rivalries. A 3,000-member U.N. Intervention Brigade was recently deployed to fight and disarm rebels in the east.
(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott)