Nkunda's forces battled pro-government Mai Mai militias on November 4 and 5 in Kiwanja, killing a number of civilians trapped in the zone of conflict. Eyewitnesses in Kiwanja told Human Rights Watch that at least 20 persons were killed and another 33 wounded during a battle for the town and in the cleanup operations by Nkunda's forces that followed. Both sides have committed war crimes in the fighting around Kiwanja and the neighboring town of Rutshuru.
"UN peacekeepers in the eastern Congo are simply unable to protect civilians who are being deliberately attacked," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Concerned governments should immediately respond to the UN's urgent appeal to send more peacekeepers to protect civilians, who have already suffered so grievously."
After re-establishing control of Kiwanja on November 5, Nkunda's rebels ordered the population of some 30,000 inhabitants to leave the town and then systematically sought out and killed civilians, particulary men, whom they accused of supporting their enemies. People in Kiwanja said they heard screams into the night and saw bodies on the streets the following morning. One of those killed in Kiwanja was Alfred Nzonzo Bitwahiki, a journalist working for local radio station, Radio RACOU.
Witnesses also reported that Mai Mai militias targeted civilians in Kiwanja, including those they accussed of supporting Nkunda's forces. On November 4, at least six people, including a foreign journalist, Thomas Scheen who works for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, were abducted by Mai Mai militias in Kiwanja. To date, their whereabouts are unknown.
Nkunda's forces took Rutshuru and its neighboring town Kiwanja on October 28 from Congolese government troops and other armed groups associated with them, including Mai Mai militias. Government soldiers looted houses and stole vehicles from humanitarian agencies before fleeing. On November 4, fighting resumed and Nkunda's forces temporarily lost control of the town to Mai Mai militia.
Kiwanja and Rutshuru harbored tens of thousands of people, many who lived in displacement camps in and around the two towns. After taking control of the area on October 28, Nkunda forces encouraged the local population to destroy the camps, telling camp inhabitants that they should return home. The vast majority of the displaced were too frightened to return home, unsure about their safety and security. Many fled to the hills and forests. Humanitarian agencies are still trying to determine their whereabouts.
"The killing of civilians, the destruction of camps, and the forced return of displaced people are all war crimes," said Van Woudenberg. "Nkunda and Mai Mai commanders should immediately order their troops to stop committing such horrible abuses and hold to account those commanders who are responsible."
The Congolese army has been supported in some military operations by the local militia known as Mai Mai and another militia known as PARECO, as well as by an armed group led by Rwandan Hutu called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Some FDLR leaders participated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Peacekeepers with MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, stationed at a base close to Kiwanja, did not take adequate measures to protect civilians and carried out only a few patrols to limit the abuses. Human Rights Watch researchers and others made urgent calls to diplomats in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and to MONUC officers urging that MONUC soldiers immediately begin patrolling Kiwanja in order to protect civilians.
"The blue flag of the peacekeeping force promises hope to those targeted by killers," said Van Woudenberg. "The UN should not leave these defenseless people to be slaughtered by fighters on both sides."
A fragile ceasefire between Nkunda's forces and the Congolese army, signed in January 2008, collapsed in late August. Nkunda's troops moved toward Goma, halting just short of the town on October 29, when Nkunda declared a unilateral ceasefire. Last week, Nkunda threatened to take Goma if the ceasefire was broken and his demands for political negotiations with the government were not met.
At least 100 civilians have been killed and more than 150 injured since combat resumed in August. During the past eight weeks of fighting, an estimated 250,000 civilians have been forced from their homes in North Kivu; the total number of people displaced in both North and South Kivu is now more than 1.2 million.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to visit the Congo on November 8 and 9, and Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Joseph Kabila of Congo are due to meet at a hastily called summit in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss how to end the crisis in eastern Congo.
"The people of eastern Congo need urgent protection and security now," said Van Woudenberg. "UN peacekeepers must be reinforced immediately to provide such protection while diplomatic solutions are found."
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