, KINSHASA, Sept 11 – The M23 rebels whose clashes with the army have renewed unrest in DR Congo’s unstable east are guilty of widespread war crimes, committed with continued Rwandan backing, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The rebels, a group of former soldiers who defected from the DR Congo army in April, have raped women and girls, abducted young men and boys to fight with them, and carried out summary executions — including the killing of 33 young recruits who tried to escape their ranks, Human Rights Watch said.
The rights group said officials in neighbouring Rwanda, where top military officers have been accused by United Nations experts of backing the M23, “may be complicit” in war crimes perpetrated by the rebels.
“The M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“M23 commanders should be held accountable for these crimes, and the Rwandan officials supporting these abusive commanders could face justice for aiding and abetting the crimes.”
The rights group said its findings were based on interviews with 190 Congolese and Rwandan victims, family members, witnesses, local officials and current and former M23 fighters.
The M23 was formed by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the Congolese military in a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers claim were never fully implemented.
The fighting in eastern DR Congo has forced some 220,000 people from their homes.
Human Rights Watch said the M23 had killed at least 15 civilians in areas under their control since June and raped at least 46 women and girls, the youngest of whom was eight years old.
M23 spokesman Vianney Kazaram rejected the organisation’s findings.
“The M23 has never recruited minors, the M23 has never raped women, the M23 has never killed fighters who were defecting,” he told AFP.
Kigali also denies backing the new rebellion, and has in turn accused Kinshasa of backing a group of Hutu rebels who also operate in eastern DR Congo and oppose Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Human Rights Watch said Rwandan military officials continue to recruit young men and boys for the M23’s ranks, and estimated that at least 600 have been unlawfully recruited or forced to join the rebels.
It also said the rebels had received “important military support” from Rwandan military officials, including weapons, ammunition and training, and that the Rwandan army had deployed troops to eastern DR Congo to “directly support” M23 military operations.
“The Rwandan government’s repeated denials that its military officials provide support for the abusive M23 rebels beggars belief,” Van Woudenberg said.
“The United Nations Security Council should sanction M23 leaders, as well as Rwandan officials who are helping them, for serious rights abuses.”
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo again denied the country was supporting the M23 and lashed out at Human Rights Watch.
“There are those who are leaders of nations and there are those who earn a living from fabricating ridiculous reports and that is Human Rights Watch,” she told journalists.
“They survive off the poor welfare of Africans. Where there is no crisis those organisations wouldn’t be there. They are definitely making a lot of money from these reports. If we are making peace here, that means we are pushing them out of business.”