Kidnapping, torture, rape: Congo conflict intensifies, says UN

Dakar – The accounts are haunting. Kidnapping, torture, rape.Dozens of civilians, including women and children, have been killed by M23 rebels in eastern Congo, according to a UN report

In addition, the M23 rebels also force children to serve as soldiers, according to a report by a UN panel of experts. The 21-page report, based on interviews with more than 230 sources and a visit to the Rutshuru district of North Kivu province in Congo, where the M23 has captured territory, is expected to be released this week.

Conflict has been brewing in eastern Congo for decades, with more than 120 armed groups fighting in the region, most over land and control of mines that hold valuable minerals, while some groups try to protect their communities.

This year, the already volatile situation worsened significantly when M23 resurfaced after nearly a decade largely dormant.

The M23 first rose to prominence a decade ago when its fighters took over Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo, on the border with Rwanda. The group takes its name from a peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009, which called for the rebels to be integrated into the Congolese army. M23 accused the government of failing to implement the agreement.

In late 2021, the reactivated M23 began killing civilians and occupying large swathes of territory. M23 militants have reportedly raped and harassed women attempting to work family fields in rebel-held areas. The rebels accused civilians of espionage for the Congolese army, the report said. They were often imprisoned and some were beaten to death, it said.

The group said the population living under the M23 was not only subjected to mistreatment but also forced to pay taxes. At the Bunagana crossing on the border with Uganda, insurgents earn an average of $27,000 a month by making people carrying goods pay when they enter and leave the country, the United Nations said. Two locals living under the M23, who did not want to be named because they feared for their safety, told The Associated Press they were forced to carry rebel bags of beans and pay $5 if they wanted to enter their farm. If they wanted to, they chose the back road and left the village for fear of reprisals.

M23 did not respond to questions about the allegations, but has previously dismissed them as propaganda.

The violence by the rebels is part of a broader deterioration in the crisis in eastern Congo, with fighting between armed groups intensifying and expanding in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, the report said.

“The security and humanitarian situation in North Kivu and Ituri provinces has deteriorated markedly despite the ongoing state of martial law over the past 18 months,” despite military action by Congolese armed forces, Ugandan troops and the United Nations Mission in Congo , that report.

Compounding the situation in eastern Congo, attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces, believed to be linked to the Islamic State group, are on the rise, the report said. It said nearly a year of joint operations by Ugandan and Congolese armies “has yet to achieve the desired results of defeating or substantially weakening the ADF”. It said ADF attacks had killed at least 370 civilians and abducted hundreds of others since April, including a large number of children. The group has also expanded its activities to include Goma and the neighboring province of Ituri.

The fighting has exacerbated a dire humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo. Nearly 6 million people have been internally displaced in Congo since the conflict escalated in February, including more than 450,000 in North Kivu. Hundreds of thousands of people face extreme food insecurity and disease is spreading, aid groups say. Save the Children said there had been a spike in cholera cases in Nyiragongo, which hosts many displaced people from North Kivu province, with more than 970 cases detected in recent weeks.

Efforts to stop the violence have had little success.

A new regional force deployed to eastern Congo is facing opposition from local residents who say they don’t want more armed groups in the region. Tensions are also rising with Congo’s neighbor Rwanda, which it accuses of supporting the M23 rebels, UN-backed findings.

Earlier this week, the M23 said it was moving from Go to the The retreat of Kibumba, a small town near Ma, has held for weeks. However, residents of Kibumba say the insurgents are still present and are still attacking civilians.

“My neighbor was whipped because he refused to let the M23 slaughter his goats,” Kibumba resident Faustin Kamete said. “They lied to the international community by withdrawing troops,” he said.

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Associated Press reporter Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro is from Beni, Congo.

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