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RIGHTS-DR CONGO: Soldiers Accused of Rape Arrested

Emmanuel Chaco

FIZI, DR Congo, Jan 13 2011 (IPS) - The reported arrests of ten Congolese soldiers accused of looting stores and raping at least a dozen women in the Fizi District earlier in January is not enough to reassure local civil society.

The rapes and destruction of property were carried out on New Year’s Day by soldiers detailed to the area as part of the peacekeeping Operation Amani Leo, jointly run by the U.N. mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, and the Congolese Armed Forces.

At the end of December, a soldier accused of stabbing a local youth was killed by angry residents; members of the dead man’s unit then took their revenge on the civilian population of Fizi, a region on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in South Kivu province.

According to Gaius Shabilepa, a journalist with Radio Messenger of the People which broadcasts from Uvira, 60 kilometres from Fizi, “Angry soldiers took revenge against people’s property, destroying everything as they went, and worsening a security situation already made fragile by several groups of soldiers operating in the villages and the surrounding forests.”

Reached by phone in Fizi by IPS, Marie Kaleba, of the NGO Tupeleleze Haki za Wanawake (Popularise Women’s Rights) based in Fizi, said, “Beside the influx of displaced people which has led to a serious humanitarian situation in some villages, the lack of support for female victims of rapes perpetrated during the repression by the soldiers, risks aggravating the situation of the survivors.”

She said no action has been taken by the authorities. A local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS that “a rapid accounting revealed that more than a hundred women were raped by soldiers” and that more than 500 people who fled to safer villages were forced to endure deplorable conditions for more than a week without any aid – local officials lacking the resources to assist.”

Medical charity Médécins Sans Frontières said it had treated more than 30 women for injuries suffered during rape; U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirky said MONUSCO’s provisional report recorded 13 rapes and 19 victims of other kinds of abuse, as well as the looting of 14 shops.

The serious accusations of human rights violations underscore recurring criticism of Operation Amani Leo – the name means “peace now” in Swahili – which is intended to regain control of rebel-held territory in eastern DRC, and guarantee the security of civilians.

“The name of the military operation has changed, but the situation remains the same: women are still being killed, maimed, abused like animals,” Immaculée Birhaheka told IPS in June last year. Birhaheka is the coordinator of an NGO called Promotion and Support for Women’s Initiatives.

Reached by phone by IPS, Dioa Taheru, spokesperson for MONUSCO in Fizi, told IPS, “It is for the government and the military command structure to take measures to punish the soldiers responsible here, since the United Nations is only a partner and cannot be a substitute for the Congolese authorities.”

Taheru said that “these serious violations of human rights by Congolese soldiers are not the first. Several cases have already been reported to U.N patrols charged with the protection of civilians in this zone, in the face of silence from the local authorities. The United Nations Mission can not bear any responsibility.”

In August 2010, the U.N. mission came under heavy criticism after rebel groups were able to rape more than 300 women in another part of eastern DRC, despite the presence of a MONUSCO base a few kilometres away.

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