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(New York) - Rwandan rebel forces, government army soldiers, and their allies have raped at least 90 women and girls since late January 2009 in the volatile North and South Kivu provinces of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. The Rwandan rebel forces have also been implicated in the deaths of most of the 180 civilians killed during this period.

The United Nations Security Council will discuss on April 9 the latest report by the UN secretary-general on the peacekeeping force in Congo. Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to press the Congolese government to remove human rights abusers from its armed forces and end rights violations, including attacks against women and girls.

The Rwandan Hutu militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) attacked and burned dozens of villages and towns in Masisi and Lubero territories (North Kivu) as well as in Kalehe territory (South Kivu) in recent weeks, committing numerous deliberate killings, rapes, and acts of looting. Blaming government military operations, the FDLR deliberately targeted civilians, used them as human shields, and accused civilians of having betrayed them. According to witnesses and victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the FDLR have been implicated in the killings of at least 154 civilians since January 23.

"The FDLR are deliberately killing and raping Congolese civilians as apparent punishment for the military operations against them," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Both the fighters who commit such horrific acts and the rebel commanders who permit them are responsible for war crimes."

The FDLR were temporarily pushed out of their military positions in January and February 2009 following the start of a joint military operation against them by Congolese and Rwandan troops on January 20. Following the withdrawal of Rwandan forces on February 24, military action diminished and the FDLR reoccupied many of their previous positions.

Most recently, at least seven civilians were killed and 24 others wounded during FDLR attacks in Lubero and Walikale in early April. On March 20, 2009, the FDLR attacked Buhuli, North Kivu, and four other nearby villages, killing at least five civilians, including two women, an elderly man, a 7-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy. On February 13, the FDLR attacked the village of Kipopo, killing at least 13 people, who were burned to death in their homes.

In late February, the FDLR abducted at least a dozen women and girls from Remeka, in Masisi territory, North Kivu. Two women who escaped reported that FDLR combatants brutally killed nine of the women and girls when they resisted attempts to rape them. The fate of the others is unknown.

The Congolese army has also been implicated in numerous rapes. In March, Congolese soldiers raped at least 21 women and girls in southern Masisi and northern Kalehe territories. Many of the victims were violently gang raped while the soldiers were on looting sprees.

On March 24, four women from Ziralo, South Kivu, were returning from the market when they were stopped by a group of army soldiers at a makeshift barricade. The soldiers took the sacks of food the women were carrying and then said they were going to examine the women's vaginas for any hidden money. The soldiers took the women into the nearby forest and gang raped each of them for hours. One woman was six-months pregnant and was raped so brutally that she lost her unborn child.

The recent killings by the rebel group are in addition to those perpetrated by its forces on January 27, when FDLR combatants hacked to death dozens of civilians used as human shields at their military position in Kibua. One witness at Kibua interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw an FDLR combatant batter a 10-year-old girl to death against a brick wall.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 250,000 people have fled their homes since January, adding to hundreds of thousands of others who fled earlier waves of violence.

The Congolese army says it is preparing for the next phase of operations against the FDLR, this time expanding the operations to South Kivu. The army has added over 10,000 additional soldiers from former Congolese rebel groups, including the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO), and other local militia groups. The rapidly mixed brigades of former enemies have been sent to the front lines with no salaries, rations, or any formal training, increasing the likelihood of future human rights violations.

Serious abuses against civilians by government soldiers have already been reported. Army soldiers killed at least five civilians in Lubero territory in March, some while on looting sprees. In Ziralo, an elderly man was killed by soldiers while they raped his wife and looted his home.

The rapid integration process has included no formal vetting mechanism to stop those with serious records of past human rights abuses from being promoted and integrated into the Congolese army.

Bosco Ntaganda, wanted on an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the war crime of enlisting child soldiers and using them in hostilities, was promoted to the position of general in the Congolese army in January 2009. In addition to the ICC charges, Ntaganda has been accused of commanding troops that massacred 150 civilians at Kiwanja in North Kivu province in November 2008.

Jean-Pierre Biyoyo was recently appointed a colonel in the Congolese army despite being found guilty by a Congolese military court in March 2006 of recruiting child soldiers. He later escaped from prison. Both Ntaganda and Biyoyo play an important role in current military operations.

The Congolese army will be supported by the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, in its military operations against the FDLR. MONUC says that its top priority is to protect civilians, but it is not clear how civilians will be protected against further attacks by either FDLR or Congolese army soldiers.

"Protection of civilians can only be taken seriously if known human rights abusers are removed from the ranks of the Congolese army," said Van Woudenberg. "The Security Council should seek an immediate answer from the Congolese government on when it will carry out such arrests and what it will do to stop further rape and killing by its troops before it gives any support to the military operations."

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