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(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should act with urgency to send additional peacekeepers to northern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continues its brutal attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Security Council is expected to discuss the situation in Congo on February 17, 2009.

The 67-page report, “The Christmas Massacres: LRA Attacks on Civilians in Northern Congo,” details the brutal slaughter of more than 865 civilians and the abduction of at least 160 children between December 24, 2008, and January 17 in the Haute Uele district of Congo. In some of the most devastating attacks, LRA combatants waited until people had come together for Christmas festivities and then hacked their victims to death with machetes and axes or crushed their skulls with clubs and heavy sticks.

“It is shocking that peacekeepers authorized by the Security Council have still not arrived to help Congolese people who live in daily fear of attack,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The council’s good intentions are meaningless if they do not translate into concrete action to save lives.”

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, is thinly stretched across huge swathes of Congo. It had less than 300 peacekeepers stationed in the Haute Uele area when the attacks began, and only a few more have been added since. An additional 3,000 troops for Congo authorized by the UN Security Council in November have yet to arrive. UN officials say few countries have come forward to offer peacekeeping troops for the mission.

Two of the worst attacks on civilians occurred on Christmas Day. In Faradje, 143 people were brutally killed when LRA forces attacked as the town was holding its Christmas music concert. In the Doruma area, 160 miles away, LRA combatants began three days of slaughter across more than 13 villages, killing 300 civilians.

The killings by the LRA continued in the days and weeks that followed in multiple locations across northern Congo and southern Sudan. The most recent attack occurred on February 7 when the LRA attacked the Congolese town of Aba, near the border with Sudan, killing at least six and abducting over 20 people, including children.

A 72-year-old man who arrived late to the Christmas lunch at Batande hamlet, in Doruma area, described how he hid in the bushes as the LRA killed at least 82 people, including 26 men who were beaten to death, their heads crushed with large sticks. He told Human Rights Watch researchers: “When they finished I slipped away and went to my home, where I sat trembling all night. That night I heard the LRA celebrating. Then they slept there among the bodies of those they had killed.”

According to the United Nations, over 140,000 people have fled their homes since late December to seek safety elsewhere in Congo or across the border in Sudan. In some areas, people are afraid to gather together, believing that the LRA may choose such moments to strike, as they did with such devastating efficiency on December 25.

The LRA attacks followed the start of a joint military operation on December 14, led by the Ugandan army with support from the Congolese and Southern Sudanese armies, to destroy the rebel group. The Ugandan army attacked the LRA headquarters in Congo’s Garamba National Park, near the border with Sudan. Following the attack, LRA forces dispersed into several groups, each of which targeted civilians along its path.

Despite previous experience of such LRA tactics, Congolese and Ugandan military planners did not make adequate preparations to protect civilians from LRA reprisal attacks. Congolese army soldiers arrived in Doruma and Faradje only after the massacres had taken place.

The UN peacekeepers, who have a strong mandate to protect civilians, were not involved in planning the operation and were informed about it only shortly before it began. As a result, they had made no preparations to help protect civilians.

“Congolese civilians at grave risk from LRA attack are not getting the protection they deserve from the armies involved in the joint operations,” said Van Woudenberg. “The UN Security Council should insist that MONUC be involved in planning these operations and increase the number of peacekeepers in the area so that adequate protection measures can be taken.”

The Ugandan army says its objectives are to track the LRA and its leader Joseph Kony, who is wanted on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), and to rescue civilians abducted by the LRA. To date, only about 114 civilians have been rescued out of more than 600 who are believed to have been abducted.

From February 7 to 11, John Holmes, the UN emergency relief coordinator, visited northern and eastern Congo to assess the situation. He is to report to the UN Security Council at the February 17 meeting.

Human Rights Watch called on the Security Council to:

  • Give priority to the prompt recruitment and deployment of the additional 3,000 MONUC peacekeepers agreed to in resolutions 1843 and 1856 and provide additional resources, including further logistical capacity, to peacekeepers to protect civilians at risk of LRA attack;
  • Support a strategy to apprehend LRA commanders wanted by the ICC and others implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity while minimizing risk to civilians, and request member states to provide the necessary financial and operational resources to do so.

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