Johannesburg: A UN-backed Congolese military operation to oust rebels from eastern Congo has caused more civilian casualties than damage to rebels, with more than 1,400 people deliberately killed over a nine-month period, human rights groups said on Monday.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented "vicious and widespread" attacks against civilians by soldiers and rebels between January and September. Soldiers being fed and supplied with ammunition by the United Nations have killed civilians, gang-raped girls and cut the heads off some young men they accuse of being rebels or supporting the enemy, groups said.
"For every rebel combatant disarmed, one civilian has been killed, seven women and girls have been raped, six houses have been burned and destroyed and 900 people have been forced to flee their homes," British-based organisation Oxfam said.
Human Rights Watch said it documented the killings of 732 civilians between January and September by the Congolese army and troops from neighbouring Rwanda fighting alongside it. In the same period, it counted 701 civilians killed by the rebels they are fighting.
"Some victims were tied together before their throats were, according to one witness, `slit like chickens.` The majority of the victims were women, children, and the elderly," the group said.
More than 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centres during that nine-month period, nearly double that of 2008 and likely representing only a fraction of the total.
Human Rights Watch said that the 19,000 peacekeepers in Congo — the biggest UN force in the world — must "immediately cease all support to the current military operation" until it can ensure there are no violations of international humanitarian law. The group also called for the UN to find "a new approach to protect civilians”.
"The UN peacekeepers are being put in an appalling situation where they are supporting an Army that is attacking its own population," it said.
The allegations come as Congo`s President Joseph Kabila has asked the UN to draw up a schedule for the withdrawal of its forces, which have been in the country since 1999. The biggest UN accomplishment was overseeing Congo`s first democratic elections in four decades, held in 2006. Kabila would have the peacekeepers withdraw before new elections scheduled for 2011.
Protecting civilians is the primary purpose of the UN peacekeepers, but they have struggled with a contradictory mandate that also requires them to support the Congolese Army.