KINSHASA, Congo — Congo’s army needs more international help to prevent brutal rebel attacks such as the recent mass gang-raping in eastern Congo, a government spokesman said Thursday.
Information Minister Lambert Mende also charged that the United Nations exaggerates the amount of rape in Congo and said its top official for sexual violence in conflict is wrong to call the country the “rape capital of the world.”
Mende spoke at a news conference called to respond to criticisms that more should have been done to prevent the latest atrocity, where nearly 200 women and four baby boys were raped over four days within miles of a U.N. peacekeepers’ base.
Lambert said Congo’s army needs more on-the-ground support for its security forces from the international community.
But the U.N. peacekeeping and stabilization mission in Congo already has faced a barrage of criticism for its support of offensives against rebels which have seen more than 60,000 soldiers — more than one-third of Congo’s army — spread across eastern Congo and often preying on the population.
Civil society leaders recently have been calling for the demilitarization of some zones, saying the soldiers, often unpaid, are as much a danger to the population as rebels.
Thousands of soldiers in the army were rebels until recently and have received little training. They include officers wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. The army itself was cobbled together hastily from the predatory soldiers of ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and the rebel armies that helped force him from power.
U.N. support for the offensive is limited to transport, food, fuel and medical evacuations.
Operations against Rwandan FDLR rebels first launched in January 2009 have forced a couple thousand to disarm, flee or join the army, but their command structure remains intact and they still pose a threat to civilians.
The FDLR, one of dozens of rebel and militia groups operating in eastern Congo, is made up of former Rwandan genociders who fled across the border to Congo in 1994 and have been terrorizing civilians ever since.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission also came under pressure from international and local rights organizations for its failure to protect civilians last year. The U.N. legal office in New York warned the peacekeepers could be held responsible for international war crimes committed by Congolese army troops that they assisted.
U.N. peacekeepers are in a difficult position, with a contradictory mandate that demands they support the Congolese army and at the same time protect civilians, who sometimes are ravaged by the soldiers. U.N. officials in Congo responded by refusing to support army units that included known human rights violators.
Will F. Cragin of the International Medical Corps on Monday said that U.N. workers knew rebels had occupied Luvungi town and surrounding villages the day after the attacks began on July 30.
On Wednesday, the top U.N. envoy in Congo said peacekeeping patrols were not informed by villagers that mass rapes were taking place. He said the U.N. is now working to improve communications and prevent any recurrence.
Roger Meece, the new U.N. special representative, said the reported rapes showed that the force’s actions to protect civilians were insufficient and need to be reviewed.
In defence of the army, its spokesman for eastern Congo, Maj. Sylvain Ikenge, told The Associated Press that the area where the latest atrocity took place, the mining area of Walikale, is huge and covered by a rugged forested terrain that offers cover for the rebels.
“Walikale is larger than the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi all put together,” he said. “What happened is execrable and we deeply regret that, but it must also be noted that it happened in an area that is almost inaccessible.”
The United Nations also has said that the area is remote and not easily reached. But Luvungi, the centre of the attacks, is a town of 2,200 people on the main road from the eastern provincial capital, Goma, to Walikale mining town.
Mende also defended his country, criticizing the U.N.’s top official for sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallstrom, for naming Congo as the world’s capital of rapes. Mende said that there are other countries that record far more rapes that Congo.