MINOVA, DRC - Civilians in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo say soldiers from the Congolese army have been looting homes and raping residents in towns under their control, as they retreat from M23 rebels.
More than a thousand soldiers from the Congolese army, known as FARDC, roamed the streets of Minova Saturday, after suffering setbacks this week in their fight against the M23 rebels.
The army has been consolidating its forces in the town, which lies between Goma and Bukavu on the shores of Lake Kivu.
Residents here say while they initially welcomed the soldiers, they have become a terror to the town: raping women, looting shops and even killing people.
Minova resident Nico Patrice said the abuses started over the last two days, after FARDC lost a battle for the town of Sake, about 25 kilometers from the commercial hub of Goma, which is also under rebel control.
“They took a lot of items from the shops,” he said, “a lot of food items, and things for sale. They told us that if anyone complained, they would get killed.
A United Nations liaison working in the town confirmed accounts of FARDC soldiers committing grave human rights violations and said U.N. peacekeepers were coming to survey the situation.
A convoy of soldiers from the U.N. Peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) headed toward Minova from the direction of Goma Saturday, but was turned away at a checkpoint manned by a government-aligned militia.
Residents at displaced people's camps around Goma have complained of similar abuses by retreating Congolese soldiers.
Human rights groups also have recorded violations by Congolese soldiers during past conflicts. The M23 rebels are also accused of committing executions, rape and forced recruitment of soldiers as they seize territory in the east.
While the fighting has subsided over the past two days, the consolidation of FARDC forces may be a sign that hostilities could soon resume. On Saturday, a soldier with a government-aligned militia outside Minova said they and the government forces are planning to attack the rebels.
Fearing violence, residents, clutching their belongings, fled the area around Minova Saturday - a scene that has repeated itself throughout the conflict in eastern DRC. One woman said U.N. peacekeepers told her to take refuge in a local hospital.
The United Nations says as many as 140,000 people have been displaced by recent fighting in and around Goma.