M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have carried out dozens of summary executions, raped scores of women and recruited men and boys by force while receiving support from neighbouring Rwanda, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The accusations from the rights campaigner came as the Tutsi-dominated insurgents clashed with government forces on Monday just a few kilometres from Goma, the largest city in Congo’s mineral-rich but violence-plagued eastern borderlands.
M23 provoked international outcry last November when the rebels – with support from neighbouring Rwanda, according to a United Nations group of experts – captured and briefly held the city of 1 million people, Reuters reports.
That Rwandan support has continued, HRW said, even after M23’s former leader, General Bosco Ntaganda, surrendered to the International Criminal Court at the U.S. embassy in Rwanda in March.
“This support is sustaining an armed group responsible for numerous killings, rapes and other serious abuses,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report
Both M23 and the Rwandan government rejected the accusations.
Having interviewed more than 100 civilians and former M23 fighters since March, HRW researchers concluded that the rebels had executed at least 44 people, some after being accused of collaborating with M23’s Hutu militia enemies.
M23 fighters killed 15 Hutu civilians in several villages in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu province on April 25 and 26, and at least another six there two months later, according to the rights group.
Other executions targeted recruits attempting to desert the rebels’ ranks and prisoners caught while trying to escape, it said.
HRW said it found 61 cases of rape by M23 fighters who in many cases threatened to kill their victims if they reported the attacks or sought medical treatment.
The rebels also have forcibly recruited dozens of men and boys since March, HRW said, often abducting or arresting them and accusing them of belonging to rival militia groups before enrolling them.
Fighters were recruited in Congo as well as in Rwanda where many were taken from the ranks of demobilised soldiers and militia there.
M23 rejected the allegations of abuse, accusing HRW of deliberately attempting to tarnish the movement’s image.
“It’s false. That is clear. There isn’t a single place in the territory we hold where we have harmed anyone,” M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters.
He also rejected the accounts of witnesses who claimed to have seen uniformed Rwandan soldiers crossing the border in and out of Congo and denied that M23 had received outside support.
After 11 regional nations including Rwanda and Congo signed an agreement to end the long-simmering conflict earlier this year, the country’s U.N. mission started deploying an intervention force to neutralise armed groups in eastern Congo.
But the latest U.N. experts’ report seen by Reuters last month said military officers from Rwanda and Congo were continuing to fuel violence in the region by supporting rival groups.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied meddling in its much larger western neighbour, and on Monday quickly rejected the findings of the HRW report.
“It’s the same old stuff,” Rwanda’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe said following a U.N. Security Council meeting on the experts’ report.