Congolese government soldiers killed at least 50 Rwandan civilian refugees during United Nations-backed operations against rebels in the east earlier this year, a UN investigator said.
The report is likely to intensify pressure on the UN’s Congo peacekeeping force, which is already under fire for backing the army in operations against Rwandan rebels despite complaints about abuse by soldiers and the high number of civilians being caught up in the violence, Reuters reports.
“I think the general details are fairly straightforward in terms of the (army) going into a camp which was occupied largely by women, children and the elderly, carrying out a determined attempt to eliminate everyone in the camp,” said Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.
Alston said the massacre happened when the soldiers, mainly former Congolese Tutsi rebels integrated into the army as part of a January peace deal, attacked the village of Shalio on April 27 during an offensive into South Kivu province.
“At least 50 people were killed. Some 40 women were abducted and raped. Some of those have not reappeared since,” he added.
The killings provoked a reprisal attack by the Rwandan Hutu rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) on the nearby village of Busurungi on May 10, in which least 96 civilians were killed.
The incident highlights the cycles of violence in Congo’s east, three years after the UN helped the vast nation hold a poll meant to draw a line under a decade of war and chaos.
UN peacekeepers have a mandate to back Congo’s government forces but often find themselves operating alongside a poorly-paid and ill-disciplined army cobbled together from a myriad of armed groups that took part in Congo’s wars.
Congo’s Information Minister Lambert Mende said authorities were aware of the massacre but they feared the repercussions of arresting a former Tutsi rebel commander known as Colonel Zimulinda, whom Alston blames for ordering the attack.
“Zimulinda’s arrest would have had worse consequences than the crimes of which he is accused,” he said, referring to fears it might destabilise the army’s fragile integration of dozens of former rebel groups and militias during the January deal.
Congo launched operations against the FDLR, some of whose members participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in January as part of efforts to heal ties with Rwanda, a former enemy during the country’s 1998-2003 war.
UN Security Council member states unanimously approved military and logistical backing for the offensive to target the rebels, seen as a root cause of more than a decade of instability in the region.
Rights campaigners and humanitarian agencies want the UN to withdraw its support if civilians cannot be protected.
Over 1000 civilians have been killed, more than 7000 women and girls raped, and more than 900 000 people forced to flee their homes since the offensive began.