International pressure is mounting on the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo and their alleged backers. Following the release of a Human Rights Watch report
that accused the rebels of war crimes, the United Nations Security Council said it intends to apply targeted sanctions against the M23’s leaders and those sending them arms.
The M23 on Monday gave its small force of less than 2,000 combatants a new name -- the Congolese Revolutionary Army.
Rebel spokesman Vianney Kazerama told VOA that despite having few fighters, M23 has been able to defeat much larger government forces because it has a cause.
He denied reports from U.N. experts that the M23 has been reinforced by the Rwandan army.
He said the group's leaders, when they were in a previous rebel movement, signed a peace agreement with the government on March 23, 2009, which the government did not respect.
That accord called for the government army to neutralize the Rwandan Hutu rebels that have been in the Congo for nearly two decades after many of them took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The accord also called for better governance, for a good integration of Congolese rebels into the army and political life, and for the return of some 55,000 Congolese refugees from Rwanda, many of whom have been there for more than a decade.
The Congolese refugees in Rwanda are mostly of the Tutsi ethnic group, as are most of the M23’s commanders and many of its rank and file.
The M23 is a successor movement to other Tutsi-dominated rebellions that conquered parts of the DRC in recent civil wars and aroused strong antagonism among many people.
Since the M23 launched its rebellion earlier this year it is blamed for destabilizing the whole of North Kivu province, where 320,000 people have fled their homes since May. The group controls only a strip of territory about 120 kilometers from north to south along the borders with Uganda and Rwanda, but has shown it can defeat the regular army.
M23 is accused by Human Rights Watch of deliberately killing 15 civilians since June and of executing 33 of its own combatants for trying to desert.
Several of the M23’s leaders are also accused of having command responsibility for massacres, forced recruitment, rape and torture between 2004 and 2008 when they were serving with previous rebel movements.
M23 denies the war crimes charges. A civilian spokesman for the movement, Maitre Muhire, spoke to VOA at the rebels' headquarters in Bunagana.
"I’ve read the Human Rights Watch report and what I found is it’s based just on rumors, because those allegations don’t give the area where the supposed crime has been committed, they don’t say the names of the victims, they don’t mention anything which really can be a proof that the crime has been committed," said Muhire.
Muhire said the Congolese NGO which carried out the field work for the report is biased against the movement. He said the M23 has asked for a neutral investigation supervised by the U.N. He also invited journalists to check out the allegations themselves.
Human Rights Watch and other sources report that the rebels have threatened to kill people who speak out against the movement.
A number of civilians who approached by VOA in areas under M23’s control were reluctant to talk about the rebels’ record, while others complained about soldiers extorting food and other items. Hardly anyone, except one or two who had joined the movement, were singing its praises.
The M23 arranged for VOA to visit a training camp and meet about 20 men who had recently joined the movement. Nearly all of these men were in civilian dress and from their age and background it seemed likely that they had volunteered to work as civilian cadres, rather than as soldiers.
One officer who recently deserted from the Congolese army and gave his name as Douglas was an exception.
He said he had deserted because there was tribal hatred against his people in the army and other soldiers wanted to eradicate them.
A U.S.-based Congolese analyst, Jason Stearns, says incidents in which Tutsi soldiers in the Congolese army have been threatened or murdered by their comrades have helped to spark off repeated rebellions among the Tutsi community.
Stearns also reports that the M23 has recruited hundreds more combatants since its last major clashes with the army in August. VOA was not allowed walk around the training camp to see any of these new recruits. Human Rights watch alleges that many of them were recruited by force, many are under 18 and some are under 15.