Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 13:30 UK

UN criticised on Congo offensive

Refugee camp north of Goma
Thousands have been displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo

United Nations peacekeepers have been criticised for supporting a government military offensive in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A joint report by several international aid agencies said the mission had had "disastrous" humanitarian consequences.

It said the offensive against ethnic Hutu rebels in eastern DR Congo had caused widespread killings and rape.

The Congolese and international lobby groups said the UN needed to take immediate action to protect civilians.

The Congo Advocacy Coalition report said disarming the Hutu rebels is a top priority - but that for every rebel who has been disarmed this year, one civilian has been killed, seven women or girls raped, and 900,000 people made homeless.

Rapes and murder

The UN supplies, transports and - in some cases pays - the Congolese government army as part of international efforts to rebuild the country after many years of war.

It is currently backing a government army offensive against the FDLR rebels now based in eastern DR Congo but originally from neighbouring Rwanda, where some of them took part in the genocide of 1994.

Since January, it has also been reported that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, 7,000 women and girls have been raped, and more than 6,000 homes have been burned down in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu.

The coalition urged diplomats and UN officials to discuss the situation during a scheduled meeting in Washington DC this week.

Satellite images of the destruction

Some of the violence has been reprisals carried out by the Hutu rebels, the report said, but Congolese government soldiers had also targeted civilians through killings, rape and looting.

The report includes satellite pictures of villages in eastern DR Congo taken before and after the government offensive and rebel reprisals.

The pictures show apparently busy villages reduced to abandoned, burnt-out huts.

Marcel Stoessel, who leads aid organisation Oxfam's operations in the area, said: "The human rights and humanitarian consequences of the current military operation are simply disastrous.

"UN peacekeepers, who have a mandate to protect civilians, urgently need to work with government forces to make sure civilians get the protection they need, or discontinue their support."

The coalition said the UN had failed to use its influence to stop the government army employing commanders with a known record of human rights abuses.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the UN needed to use its clout.

She said: "The UN needs to make it clear that if the Congolese government wants its continued military support, the army should remove abusive soldiers from command positions and its soldiers should stop attacking civilians."

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