, GENEVA, Sep 24 – Three groups of armed militia raped at least 303 civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over four days, said a UN initial report on the atrocities whose "scale and viciousness… defy belief."
"At least 303 civilians were raped, in many cases multiple times," said a statement issued by the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the country in a preliminary report outlining the violations which took place between July 30 and August 2.
"The known victims include 235 women, 52 girls, 13 men and three boys," detailed the probe, following the team\’s visit to 13 affected villages in the Walikale region in Nord-Kivu province.
"In addition, at least 923 houses and 42 shops were looted and 116 people were abducted in order to carry out forced labour," it said.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the figures could still rise.
"The total number of victims may be higher, attacks were still going on when the team was in the villages," said Colville, adding that the team were unable to complete their work in six of 13 villages due to "serious security problems."
Before the probe, the UN officials had noted at least 242 rapes in these villages, and another 260 in other parts of Nord and Sud Kivu provinces.
The UN joint mission said that due to the serious insecurity, it had not been able to confirm the circumstances surrounding other incidents.
"While one group was looting and raping in a village… another would be setting ambushes to catch people fleeing through the forest, who were also then raped or taken away as forced labour," it added.
"The scale and viciousness of these mass rapes defy belief," said UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.
"Even in the eastern part of DRC where rape has been a perennial and massive problem for the past 15 years, this incident stands out because of the extraordinarily cold-blooded and systematic way in which it appears to have been planned and executed," she added.
In the Walikale case, the probe identified "serious shortcomings" on the part of the local Congolese army and police to prevent mass rapes.
Their "failure to prevent or stop the attacks was compounded by subsequent failings on the part of MONUSCO forces, which it says had not received any specific training on the protection of civilians, and suffered from a number of operational constraints."
Since the start of September, the UN peacekeeping force in the country (MONUSCO) has increased its presence in the Walikale region, west of Nord Kivu. MONUSCO is part of the joint office which produced the report.
The UN report blamed the rapes on around 200 members of the Mai-Mai Cheka group, rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and a group connected to army deserter Emmanuel Nsengiyumva.
Describing the horrific events, the report said the militia arrived in villages pretending that they wanted to protect the population, before launching their attacks in small groups.
Armed with AK47s, grenades and machetes, the militia trapped the population, cutting off all telephone communications and preventing the villagers from raising the alarm.
The report called on the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice.
However, UN officials acknowledged the difficulty of breaking the culture of impunity in the country, which has suffered brutal rebel attacks for over a decide.
"Obviously, we would hope that this would lead to people being arrested and prosecuted and if guilty convicted. But realistically it\’s extremely difficult in this environment in DRC," said Colville.