Preliminary investigations by the UN peacekeeping force in Congo indicate that Congolese army soldiers committed rapes, looting and other human rights violations after they retreated from the key city of Goma following its capture by M23 rebels, the United Nations said Friday.
The UN mission could not confirm reports that 72 rapes were committed in the Minova area, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of Goma, but its initial investigation found that several violations, including rape and looting, were committed by Congolese army elements, UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
UN personnel are on the ground conducting further investigations and have expressed serious concern to Congolese authorities, he said.
The United Nations has been working with its partners and health authorities in South Kivu to make medical assistance available to survivors of sexual violence in health centers in the Minova area, del Buey said.
Since June, he said, the UN mission has also received allegations of serious rights violations, including killings and wounding of civilians, rape, looting, and forced recruitment of children, by elements of the M23 rebels in Goma and neighboring areas.
Del Buey said the UN mission can confirm the killing and wounding of civilians as well as looting committed by the M23 in Goma and surrounding areas. He said investigations into the allegations are ongoing.
The M23 rebel group, made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April and backed by Rwanda, took control of many villages and towns in the mineral-rich east over the last seven months, culminating in the seizure of Goma on Nov. 20. It took days of negotiations and intense international pressure, including from the UN, for the thousands of fighters from M23 to finally withdraw from the regional capital last weekend.
Mineral-rich eastern Congo has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias before a Tutsi-led rebel army took power in Rwanda. More than 1 million Rwandan Hutus fled across the border into Congo, and Rwanda has invaded Congo to take action against Hutu militias there. The exploitation of Congo's mineral resources continues to exacerbate conflict and instability on the ground.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council on the latest developments in eastern Congo Friday that M23 has completed its withdrawal from Goma and regular activity has resumed in the airport.
But he said some M23 elements are still present north of Goma.
UN peacekeepers are patrolling in Goma alongside some 2,400 Congolese police who have returned to the city, Ladsous said.
Germany's UN Ambassador Peter Wittig, who chairs the UN Security Council's Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, told council members earlier Friday that the situation in eastern Congo "is a grim reminder that civilians - especially women and children - continue to bear the brunt of war and conflict."
According to the UN mission in Congo, more than 50 children were killed in eastern Congo last month - almost as many as the 55 youngsters killed in all of 2011, he said.
In the first 10 months of this year, Wittig said, the UN mission confirmed 143 deaths of children in eastern Congo, almost triple the number killed annually in the last four years which ranged from 40 to 55.
Wittig told the council that M23 is estimated to have forcibly recruited at least 300 children as child soldiers. "There are gruesome testimonies from children confirming that M23 commanders killed child soldiers within their ranks who tried to escape, he said."
He said other armed groups also increased recruitment of children.