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Human Rights Watch Accuses Congo Rebels of Killing Civilians

VOA News - November 7, 2008

Butty interview with Van Woudenberg - Download (MP3) audio clip
Butty interview with Van Woudenberg - Listen (MP3) audio clip

Laurent Nkunda
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate halt to fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where clashes between rebels and government forces have displaced tens of thousands of people over the past week. Mr. Ban's statement, issued Thursday through his spokesperson, came a day before the secretary-general attends an emergency summit on Congo in Nairobi.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch has accused Congolese Tutsi rebels of war crimes for the alleged killing of numerous civilians in the town of Kiwanja.

Anneke Van Woudenberg is senior researcher on the Democratic Republic of Congo for Human Rights Watch. She told VOA her organization has evidence rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda are responsible for the killings.

"Human Rights Watch has document that in the town of Kiwanja, a town that is some 70 kilometers north of Goma, that on November 4th and November 5th, there was fighting between the Tutsi rebels of General Nkunda and local Mai-Mai rebels, and in those particular battles numerous civilians were killed. But more worryingly we documented that after the battles were over that the rebel forces of General Nkunda ordered some 30,000 people to leave the town, and then went door to door attempting to find collaborators, killing many people in the operation in what clearly was a violation of international humanitarian law," she said.

But General Nkunda's rebels denied killing innocent civilians. The group said it was only going after pro-Congolese government militia.

Van Woudenberg said the rebels have told similar stories in the past.

"What we know is that when combat finished and they asked the population to leave the town that they then killed numerous individuals, many of whom were civilians who they assumed were collaborators of the Mai-Mai. But I do think it's important to remind everyone that these are indeed war crimes. Once combat is over, once individuals are no longer armed, they cannot be executed in this style and in this format, and especially people who never had anything to with the combat," Van Woudenberg said.

She did not rule out recommending General Nkunda's name to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecution.

"Human Rights Watch, of course this is not the first time that we have documented crimes either by the troops of General Nkunda or indeed by many other armed groups in eastern Congo. What I think it's crucial is that further investigations are carried out, and indeed we've very much urged judicial authorities either from the International Criminal Court or from national jurisdictions to urgently look at what happened and to ensure that actors not just from these killings that happened in Kiwanja but from other towns as well over the past few years are held to account and are arrested," she said.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Thursday called for an immediate halt to fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr. Ban's statement, issued Thursday through his spokesperson, came a day before the secretary-general attends an emergency summit on Congo in Nairobi.

Van Woudenberg hoped the international community would heed the Secretary General's call to support MONUC, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the DRC, and which has been criticized for doing little to protect civilians.

It's certainly clear that from the events of the past few days that U.N. peacekeepers did not come to aid of civilians in Kiwanja. But of course this is a peacekeeping force that is largely stretched out across this huge country, and I think it is absolutely urgent that U.N. member states, specifically the European Union heed the call of the Secretary General. He has requested additional troops for the U.N. peacekeepers. So far that request has fallen on death ears. I really hope that the Secretary General's call is answered and that over the weekend and also early next week international leaders would put forward additional help for this beleaguered U.N. mission," Van Woudenberg said.

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