RUTSHURU, Congo, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Civilians on both sides of the front lines in eastern Congo are being killed, raped and abducted by both Tutsi rebels and government troops despite a lull in fighting, human rights campaigners said on Monday.
After weeks of combat which displaced a quarter of a million people, rebel fighters loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda pulled back from some frontline positions last week in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.
A ceasefire declared by Nkunda in late October, when he halted his advance on the provincial capital Goma, was ratified on Nov. 16, leading to a week of relative calm.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), citing reports from victims, witnesses and local rights activists, says abuses against civilians, including killings, rapes and kidnappings, have gone on in both rebel- and government-controlled zones.
"We are getting reports of killings in Kiwanja and disappearances in other locations committed by both sides that indicate serious human rights violations are ongoing," HRW Congo researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg told Reuters.
Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels took Kiwanja and Rutshuru in their advance. Rights activists accused the rebels and rival pro-government Mai-Mai militia of tit-for-tat killings of dozens of civilians.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) called the killings, along with recruitment of child soldiers, war crimes.
The CNDP denied its fighters were responsible for the murders in Kiwanja and blamed the Mai Mai militia.
In a letter to Nkunda last week, MONUC chief Alan Doss, demanded that he put an end to abuses against civilians.
"(The UN) continues to receive pertinent information relative to grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights attributed to your elements," Doss wrote.
LIVING IN FEAR
The CNDP says its occupation of Rutshuru and Kiwanja aims to protect their civilian population. But several residents said they lived in fear of the rebels, whom they said accused them of siding with the CNDP's sworn enemies, Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
"If you speak Kinyarwanda, they think you are FDLR. They take you into the bush and kill you," Shabani Sibumami, a teacher in Kiwanja, said. "If Nkunda's soldiers really were here to protect us, we wouldn't be so afraid," he added.
Nkunda, from Congo's minority Tutsi community, cites the presence of the FDLR in the east as the justification for his four-year-old rebellion, which he says aims to defend Tutsis.
The Rwandan Hutu FDLR includes soldiers who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Tutsi-led Rwanda denies repeated Congolese government allegations that it supports Nkunda.
Rights groups also accuse the Congolese army of excesses. On at least two occasions, in Goma and Kanyabayonga, U.N. officials and aid workers say government troops went on a rampage of assaults, rapes and looting after fleeing from the rebels.
Rights campaigners also accuse the army of preying upon starving refugees living in squalid camps around Goma.
On Sunday, Congolese soldiers pulled around two dozen people from a U.N. convoy they had stopped, beat them, and loaded them, bound, into army trucks. "We suspected there were rebel elements," the army's Col. Jean Mugungu told Reuters.
MONUC spokesman Lt.-Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich denied those seized were rebels, saying 10 were Mai-Mai militia who had surrendered and 10 police officers brought out of rebel zones.
Dietrich said the men taken away were "incorrectly" treated and spent the night at military headquarters in Goma.
"When there's a big crowd with the army, what can we do? ... We had to negotiate," Dietrich said, explaining the action of the U.N. soldiers who let the men be pulled from their convoy.
(Additional reporting by Finbarr O'Reilly in Goma and Joe Bavier in Kinshasa; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet