JOHANNESBURG – A U.N.-backed Congolese military operation to oust rebels from eastern Congo has caused more civilian casualties than damage to rebels, with more than 1,400 people deliberately killed over a nine-month period, human rights groups said Monday.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented "vicious and widespread" attacks against civilians by soldiers and rebels between January and September. Soldiers being fed and supplied with ammunition by the United Nations have killed civilians, gang-raped girls and cut the heads off some young men they accuse of being rebels or supporting the enemy, groups said.
"For every rebel combatant disarmed, one civilian has been killed, seven women and girls have been raped, six houses have been burned and destroyed and 900 people have been forced to flee their homes," British-based organization Oxfam said.
Human Rights Watch said it documented the killings of 732 civilians between January and September by the Congolese army and troops from neighboring Rwanda fighting alongside it. In the same period, it counted 701 civilians killed by the rebels they are fighting.
"Some victims were tied together before their throats were, according to one witness, 'slit like chickens.' The majority of the victims were women, children, and the elderly," the group said.
More than 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centers during that nine-month period, nearly double that of 2008 and likely representing only a fraction of the total.
Human Rights Watch said that the 19,000 peacekeepers in Congo — the biggest U.N. force in the world — must "immediately cease all support to the current military operation" until it can ensure there are no violations of international humanitarian law. The group also called for the U.N. to find "a new approach to protect civilians."
"The U.N. peacekeepers are being put in an appalling situation where they are supporting an army that is attacking its own population," it said.
The allegations come the same week the U.N. Security Council is to deliberate on renewing the peacekeepers' mandate.
Kevin Kennedy, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo, said the Security Council has repeatedly expressed support for the offensive against the rebels and for the Congolese army despite "all the risks involved and the potential consequences of cooperating with the FARDC (army)."
Congo's President Joseph Kabila has asked the U.N. to draw up a schedule to withdraw its forces, which have been in the country since 1999. The biggest U.N. accomplishment was overseeing Congo's first democratic elections in four decades, held in 2006. Kabila would have the peacekeepers withdraw before new elections scheduled for 2011.
Protecting civilians is the primary purpose of the U.N. peacekeepers, but they have struggled with a contradictory mandate that also requires them to support the Congolese army.
U.N. officials in Congo long have argued they do not have enough boots on the ground to protect civilians — some 19,000 to cover a country the size of Western Europe. In comparison, 40,000 NATO troops in Kosovo policed some 6,200 square miles (10,000 square kilometers).
Violence first erupted in eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed half a million people of the Tutsi tribe and moderate Hutus opposed to the killing. Rwandan Hutu soldiers and militiamen who perpetrated the genocide fled to east Congo and formed the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda.
Fighting in eastern Congo ballooned into back-to-back civil wars from 1996 to 2002 that drew in neighboring countries in a rush to plunder the Central African nation's massive mineral wealth.
Over the years, the Rwandan rebels who call themselves the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, have forcibly kidnapped boys to fight its cause, and girls and women who are abused as sex slaves.
Rwandan soldiers joined the Congolese army in a three-month push against the FDLR, deliberately excluding U.N. peacekeepers. When the Rwandans withdrew in March, the U.N. mission felt it had little choice but to join the Congo army in a continued effort against the rebels.
While the Congolese have claimed victory over the FDLR, the reality on the ground is that the rebels have made strategic withdrawals and then regrouped. The victims, as the human rights reports say, have been civilians targeted by both sides.