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UN Calls for Congo Ceasefire Amid Charges of North Kivu Abuse

Addressing reporters Tuesday at UN headquarters, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, following his return from a weekend Nairobi summit on the mounting violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), said he is very concerned about reports of looting and rape by Congolese soldiers.

MONUC peacekeeping spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, said government troops since Monday have reportedly raped civilians near the town of Kanyabayonga, about 100 kilometers north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma. Because of the rampage, aid workers are hurriedly trying to reach the nearby towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja, where rebel military actions have prompted an urgent need for food and support for civilians trapped by the fighting. Human Rights Watch yesterday said its observers in North Kivu have counted at least 50 civilian deaths from last week's rebel massacre in Kiwanja, up from earlier estimates of 20 killed, and the organization says that figure may still be rising. Human Rights Watch New York spokesman on the DRC, Steve Crawshaw, says that all sides must share blame for the conflict's escalation.

"Failures on the Rwandan side are helping to destabilize the relationship with the rebel group of Laurent Nkunda. At the same time the abuses by the Congolese government, both in their failure to disarm the Hutu group, the FDLR, and certainly the track record of the Congolese government are very worrying. And the behavior of the Congolese forces. All of these are things where President Kabila of Congo has a fierce responsibility. And I think that certain things need to stop right now," he warned.

The Secretary General Tuesday called for an immediate ceasefire in order to allow aid to get through to at least 100-thousand displaced people trapped by the fighting in eastern Congo. Human Rights Watch's Steve Crawshaw says the outlook for restoring calm in the region is grim.

"Clearly, we've already had a ceasefire being declared and then ignored. The situation of civilians on the ground is at the moment catastrophic, and I think this needs to be addressed very, very urgently indeed," he noted.

Human Rights Watch has observers on the ground in North Kivu around the town of Kiwanja when rebel forces led by General Laurent Nkunda carried out reprisals against civilians believed to be cooperating with his opponents. Crawshaw says reports of newly discovered bodies in and around Kiwanja indicate that the final death toll may climb even higher and that such acts warrant a full investigation by the International Criminal Court.

"I very much hope that the crimes will be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Accountability is clearly needed. Originally there was talk of 20. We documented certainly at least 50, and that's also been now confirmed. I think it very likely that numbers may in fact rise. And civilians who have fled are also placed in great danger. People are being ordered back to their homes and told that they must go back even when they don't wish to do so. That's also absolutely in breach of international law," he said.

Crawshaw says Human Rights Watch believes that stepped up international pressure on Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is reportedly linked as a supporter to Nkunda's rebel movement, can help end the violence. He says that Britain and the United States, who are particularly close to the Rwandan leader, could get President Kagame to play what he called a "more constructive role" in quelling the violence, "which at the moment we are not seeing."