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UN Warns of DRC Army Atrocities in Kivus

The U.N.'s top official on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallström, warned Thursday that Democratic Republic of Congo troops may be responsible for rapes and murders in the same area of the Kivus where there were mass rapes of villagers in late July and early August.

Margot Wallström has just returned from a mission to the DRC where she met with victims of mass rapes that happened in several villages in North Kivu during late July and early August.

At least 300 women, men and children were sexually assaulted during attacks by three rebel groups.

In a briefing to the U.N. Security Council about her trip, Wallström raised grave concerns about on-going Congonese military operations in the Walikale territory and the implications they have for the protection of civilians in the area.

She said thousands of troops have been deployed to the area to implement a moratorium on mining and reassert government control over rebel groups. Wallström said the U.N. mission on the ground has already had some information that rapes, killings and looting have been perpetrated by Congonese soldiers or FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo). "The possibility that the same communities that were brutalized in July and August by FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda)and Mai-Mai elements are also suffering exactions at the hands of FARDC troops is unimaginable and unacceptable," she said.

She called on the government to swiftly investigate allegations and hold perpetrators to account, adding that the protection of civilians must be the primary consideration in these military operations.

She also urged the deployment of national police to high risk zones and as a visible and active protection presence. Wallström said she has requested that peacekeepers continue to monitor and report daily on reports of rapes and other possible crimes and urged the deployment of human rights monitors.

On the recent arrests - one in Paris, the other in the DRC - of two militia leaders implicated in the mass rapes of several weeks ago, Wallström said this sends the message that impunity will not be tolerated. "We must seize the momentum of these arrests to start turning the tide of impunity. The arrests must serve as a warning to perpetrators of sexual violence everywhere, and we cannot underestimate the importance of such actions for the victims and their communities. This represents a glimmer of hope for them, a moment of solace that the world is not blind to their plight, a possibility that those who brutalize them will ultimately be held to account," she said.

Wallström also urged the Security Council not to underestimate the power of sanctions in pressuring armed groups.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo was criticized for failing to stop the mass rapes. U.N. officials say they did not learn of the attacks until nearly two weeks after they occurred, despite a U.N. patrol passing through the area at the time and a U.N. base just a few kilometers from where some of the rapes took place.