'Congo rebels commit widespread rights abuses'

Human Rights Watch has reported a number war crimes allegedly performed by rebels in eastern DRC.

General Janvier Buingo Karairi, the leader of the Mai Mai, the collective term for several disparate paramilitary groups claiming to defend particular ethnic communities, group "the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS)". Picture: AFP.

KINSHASA - Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo who are allegedly receiving support from neighbouring Rwanda have committed widespread war crimes including dozens of rapes and killings, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Tuesday.

Congo's eastern hills - haunted by armed groups for nearly two decades - have seen six months of bloody clashes after hundreds of soldiers defected from the army, sparking a conflict that has forced at least 220,000 people to flee their homes.

United Nations (UN) experts say that Rwandan officials have provided logistical support and troops to the uprising, known as M23, although Kigali strongly rejects the claims.

Allegations of widespread human rights abuses by M23 come as efforts to find a solution to the crisis appear to be stalling, with the UN's peacekeeping head saying the deployment of a neutral force to tackle the rebels remains "only a concept".

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Tuesday that at least 33 of M23's own fighters had been executed for trying to desert, while 15 civilians also had been deliberately killed in rebel held territories since June.

"The M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities in eastern Congo," Anneke van Woudenberg, HRW's senior Africa researcher, said.

The rights group said it had based its research on nearly 200 interviews and had uncovered evidence of at least 46 women and girls who had been raped.

One victim said that M23 fighters had burst into her home, beaten her son to death and repeatedly raped her before dousing her legs in petrol and setting her ablaze, the rights group said.

M23 did not respond to telephone calls and messages requesting comments on Monday night, but HRW said that M23's leader, Colonel Sultani Makenga, denied allegations of human rights abuses, including widespread forced recruitment.

"We recruit our brothers, not by force, but because they want to help us... That's their decision," Makenga is quoted as saying.

HRW also said that at least 600 men and boys have been forcibly or unlawfully recruited in neighbouring Rwanda, with recruitment continuing after allegations of Rwandan complicity were published in an interim UN report in June.

"The United Nations Security Council should sanction M23 leaders, as well as Rwandan officials who are helping them, for serious rights abuses," van Woudenberg said.