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DR Congo: EU ‘Bridging’ Force Needed to Protect Civilians

Killing and Suffering Demand Rapid International Response

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[Audio report including testimony from witnesses to the killings in Kiwanja.]

The European Union should urgently send a "bridging" force to eastern Congo to help UN peacekeepers stop further attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 30-page report, "Killings in Kiwanja: The UN's Inability to Protect Civilians," details the killing of an estimated 150 people in the town of Kiwanja on November 4 and 5, 2008 - the worst killing spree in North Kivu province in two years. Although UN peacekeepers considered Kiwanja a priority protection zone, they did not have enough peacekeepers or the capacity to stop the killings. Survivors could only run to the UN base half a mile away and cluster outside the fence for protection.

"The European Union should not wait for further killings to act," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The current UN forces simply do not have the capacity or numbers to protect those Congolese at dire risk of further attacks."

The UN Security Council authorized more peacekeeping troops in November but estimates that it could take up to four months before reinforcements arrive. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has asked the European Union to provide a short-term force to protect civilians until more UN troops are in place.   

Human Rights Watch wrote to EU heads of state on December 9, asking them to deploy such a force quickly in eastern Congo.

Most of those killed in Kiwanja were summarily executed by the forces of the rebel commander Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) on November 5 after the rebel group, which had controlled the town since October 29, repulsed an attack by pro-government Mai Mai militia. The Mai Mai also deliberately killed several civilians.

The Human Rights Watch report is based on more than 130 interviews in Kiwanja and Goma, with victims, witnesses, humanitarian workers, UN peacekeepers, and officials of Nkunda's rebel group.

After re-establishing control of Kiwanja on November 5, the rebels carried out a brutal operation against any remaining Mai Mai combatants or suspected sympathizers. According to witnesses, the combatants broke into homes, demanded money and cell phones and then killed the men and teenage boys they found - slaughtering them in front of their families or on nearby streets. Most were shot, but others were hacked to death with machetes or speared. Some women and children were killed, including those who tried to protect family members.

Since the killing spree, both forces have continued to target civilians. Human Rights Watch investigations found that Nkunda's rebels and Mai Mai combatants killed at least another 18 civilians in late November and early December. The warring parties have also raped more than 16 women and girls and forcibly recruited dozens of children into armed service since late October.

Human Rights Watch researchers also documented the systematic destruction of six camps for displaced people in and around Kiwanja and neighboring Rutshuru. The displaced people fled to various locations and most still had not been located five weeks after the attack.

The rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire on October 29, but this has meant little in rural areas, where the fighting continues and much of the population remains at great risk.

"Nkunda's rebels and other armed groups must immediately cease all the attacks on civilians, the rape of women and girls, and the destruction of camps for displaced people," said Van Woudenberg. "Those responsible for these brutal atrocities must be arrested and held to account."

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, had 120 peacekeepers in Kiwanja, one of its largest field bases in North Kivu. Because of the importance of Kiwanja and Rutshuru as centers for humanitarian assistance, UN peacekeepers considered them a priority protection zone. However, the peacekeepers were not able to prevent Nkunda's rebels from taking the towns or destroying the camps for displaced people, nor were they able to stop the killing and rape of civilians. 

The UN peacekeepers relied on cooperation from Congolese army forces to provide security for the towns, but received little. Whatever possibility the peacekeepers might have had to protect civilians on their own was thwarted by logistical deficiencies and competing priorities faced by the peacekeeping force.

"EU troops would free up UN peacekeepers to strengthen bases in more remote areas, such as Kiwanja, and help prevent further atrocities," said Van Woudenberg. "The people of eastern Congo have suffered for far too long. The EU should give the UN the help it needs to protect civilians."

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