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Human Rights Watch Calls for End to Civilian Massacres in Congo


A new Human Rights Watch report describes civilian massacres by a rebel group in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo since December. The organization is calling for the U.N. Security Council to supply a promised increase in peacekeepers for the country.

The Human Rights Watch report describes brutal attacks by the Ugandan Lords Resistance Army rebel group on villages in Northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as across the border in southern Sudan. The report says the attacks have been carried out with machetes, axes and blunt clubs.

According to Human Rights Watch researchers, more than 865 civilians have been killed since mid-December, many at Christmas as villagers gathered for celebrations. Other organizations put the death toll higher.

Human Rights Watch says at least 160 children have been abducted, with reports of new attacks every week. The United Nations has reported 140,000 civilians have been displaced by the violence.

The attacks follow the launch of a military operation against the rebels by the Uganda, Congo, and southern Sudan governments. Uganda had been involved in peace negotiations with the rebels for the past two years, but had grown frustrated after the group's leader, Joseph Kony, failed to show up to sign an agreement on multiple occasions.

But even with 17,000 troops, the U.N. peacekeeping force is stretched thin in eastern Congo. The Security Council approved an additional 3,000 troops for the mission in November, but they have not arrived.

Senior Human Rights Watch Researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg visited northeastern Congo in January. She urges the Security Council, which is to discuss the DRC Tuesday, to follow through on its pledge of additional forces.

"The United Nations still only has less than 300 peacekeepers in this massive and vast region of northern Congo. So one of the problems clearly is that there are simply not enough blue helmets, not enough peacekeepers to be able to deal with the issues of protection of civilians," she said. "It Is nice for the Security Council to have made nice declarations and to make nice promises, but those are meaningless until additional troops arrive on the ground."

Earlier this month, the medical NGO Doctors without Borders criticized the U.N. peacekeeping force for not doing enough to protect civilians. The group said while the United Nations claims it is undermanned, it still has peacekeepers operating in the area who made little effort to counter attacks by the rebels or to transport injured civilians for medical treatment.

The U.N. mission says its troops' primary role is logistical support for Congo's military, rather than civilian protection. The force says the U.N. Security Council called for priority to be given to the Kivu provinces to the south, preventing the peacekeepers from diverting more resources to the LRA attacks.

Van Woudenberg says the military campaign must do more to avert retaliation against civilians.

"If this military operation is going to continue it has got to make protection of civilians one of its top priorities. And that means anticipating where LRA groups are moving in order to ensure that civilians in those areas can be protected," she said.

The campaign is set to end this month, but Ugandan army officials say they might continue the operation.

The LRA led a two-decade insurgency in Northern Uganda that killed tens of thousands and displaced as many as two million. In recent years, the LRA has shifted its operations to eastern Congo, southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Kony and his top deputies are wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

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