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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 00:49 GMT

World: Africa

Congo: 'Rapist soldiers will be punished'

By West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle in Brazzaville

The army in the West African state of Congo-Brazzaville has said that any of its soldiers found guilty of committing human rights violations against civilians will be punished.

Government army spokesman Captain Robert Obargui told the BBC that a number of soldiers accused of human rights violations were already in jail and that any others found guilty of rape and pillage, would be punished.

The spokesman was reacted to BBC reports that government soldiers were systematically looting, raping and sometimes killing war-displaced people as they returned home to the now government-controlled capital, Brazzaville.

The warring Congo-Brazzaville, situated just north of the former Zaire, has been largely won by forces loyal to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso.

But United Nations sources say half a million destitute war displaced people remain in the jungle terrified by all of the armed factions and that sporadic fighting continues.

'Heavily armed killers'

Captain Robert Obargui accepted that there have been some excesses by government troops but stressed that most violations against civilians had been committed by the armed anti-government militias known here as Ninjas.

The militias of Congo-Brazzaville have colourful even superficially amusing titles. But no one should be deceived. They are in reality heavily armed killers who are often out of control.

Captain Obargui denied that the pro-government militia, the widely feared so-called Cobras still existed.

He conceded that there were some untrained elements among government ranks who had made what he called errors.

It is certainly true that the opposition Ninja militia, which has been largely beaten militarily, has committed gross human rights violations.

Several people recently emerged from the jungle where they took refuge from fighting in the capital early this year told me that they had been used as human shields by opposition Ninja forces.

Rapes and executions

Nevertheless, two hours after interviewing the government army spokesman I spoke to a randomly chosen woman refugee who came to Brazzaville from the jungle on Sunday.

She said she was with a group of people trying to reach the capital when they encountered a government army check-point.

The woman said that all of the young girls in the group were taken aside by pro-government Cobra militia and raped.

At one notorious checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital, soldiers demand money and threaten to kill if the refugees refuse to pay.

Sometimes, the threat is carried out. On one day last month for example, eight young men were summarily executed.

Early this month, four people were made to dig their own graves and only escaped by paying the equivalent of $50.

These are just a few incidents that I was able to confirm during a short visit here. But others like them happen every day.

The aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres says the rape of young girls is systematic and that arbitrary executions are commonplace.

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