Too many civilians are dying in a United Nations-backed government offensive in Congo and the world body must withdraw its involvement if they cannot be protected, rights groups said.
However, the UN mission said it must continue backing Congolese government forces in operations against Rwandan Hutu rebels, who have been central to 15 years of violence in Central Africa, to protect fragile progress made in the region so far.
The disarmament of some 1000 of an estimated 6000 rebels has come at a cost of nearly 900 000 people displaced, 1 000 dead civilians and 7000 rapes of women and girls, according to a statement released by 84 humanitarian and rights groups.
“The human rights and humanitarian consequences of the current military operation are simply disastrous,” said Marcel Stoessel of UK-based aid agency Oxfam.
“UN peacekeepers, who have a mandate to protect civilians, urgently need to work with government forces to make sure civilians get the protection they need, or discontinue their support,” he added.
The rebels, known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), include some members of extremist Hutu groups from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and are seen as a root cause of Congo’s violence, which has simmered despite the holding of elections in 2006 meant to end years of war.
Launched in January this year, the offensive started in North Kivu with the backing of Rwanda, Congo’s former enemy, and has subsequently been extended into South Kivu with the support of the UN Security Council.
But the rights groups say the offensive has sparked massive displacements as civilians are caught between retaliatory attacks by rebels seeking to replenish their ranks and widespread abuses by government troops now including hastily integrated former rebels and militia fighters.
With nearly 20 000 soldiers, the UN’s Congo mission is the world body’s largest and was widely credited for helping Congo hold its first free poll in decades in 2006. It has also spoken out against abuses by government forces.
But critics say it nonetheless blindly backs a force that includes a senior officer wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
“The target still has to be the FDLR and the disarmament of the FDLR,” UN spokesperson Kevin Kennedy said, adding that withdrawing support for the army was out of the question but efforts were being made to limit the humanitarian fallout.
“If you do not keep moving forward, and if you don’t have the international community supporting the democratically elected government as a backstop to the army, there is a risk of backslide. It’s the lynch pin,” he said.
Pic: Congolese military