The United Nations is committed to supporting Congo’s army and has only withdrawn assistance from certain units it believes killed more than 60 civilians in recent fighting, top UN officials said.
The United Nations must remain involved with Congolese forces to prevent further abuses of civilians in the current offensive in the east of the country, they said.
The UN suspended logistical and operational support for army units it believes killed at least 62 civilians during a peacekeeper-backed offensive against the rebel group the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
But, in an interview with UN-sponsored Radio Okapi broadcast, UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the mission in Democratic Republic of Congo had no intention of withdrawing its broader support for the offensive.
“(The UN) will continue its engagement on the side of the Congolese army in the operation, which is very important in order to neutralise the FDLR. It is very clear that we have the support of the Security Council on this point,” he said.
The presence in eastern Congo of the FDLR is considered to be a root cause of over a decade of conflict and a humanitarian crisis that has killed an estimated 5.4 million people.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused government soldiers of deliberately killing at least 505 civilians, many of them women, children and the elderly, in targeted attacks since the offensive began in March. Some were hacked to death with machetes, beheaded, or burned alive in their homes, it said.
The rights campaigner called for an immediate withdrawal of support provided to the army by Congo’s UN mission, MONUC, which includes supplying food, fuel and transport for the army as well as helicopter firepower.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Congo and the deputy head of MONUC, Ross Mountain, said that withdrawing the mission’s support for the operations would limit its ability to protect civilians.
“What we are trying to do in our logistical assistance that we give to the army is to train the units in a policy of zero tolerance to help minimise the abuses of the population,” he told journalists in the capital, Kinshasa.
While admitting that there had been abuses by the up to 50 000 government soldiers involved in the operations, he denied claims made by HRW that MONUC had been aware as early as May of widespread crimes carried out by the army.
The operation, in Congo’s volatile eastern border provinces of North and South Kivu, was part of an agreement aimed at improving relations between Congo and Rwanda, enemies during a 1998-2003 war. The UN Security Council voted unanimously last month to continue supporting the Congolese army.
Humanitarian agencies and rights groups have decried the civilian toll of the offensive, which has disarmed around 1300 FDLR fighters at the cost of more than 7000 women and girls raped and more than 900 000 people forced to flee their homes.
Pic: Congolese troops