The investigation, based on interviews with 52 victims and witnesses, details a brutal campaign of killings, rapes, kidnappings and looting in the villages of Kishishe and Bambo between November 29 and 30 by the rebels. According to the report, at least 60 people were kidnapped, 22 women and girls raped, property looted and houses burned.
The killings were among the latest in clashes between the rebels and a coalition of armed civil defense militias, which have been battling each other in eastern Congo for more than a year, since M23 rebels resurfaced after nearly a decade of inactivity.
The M23 rose to prominence 10 years ago when its fighters took Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo, along the border with Rwanda. The group takes its name from a peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009, which it accuses the government of failing to implement.
After the attacks, rebels prevented survivors from leaving looted villages and reportedly buried victims’ bodies in what may have been an attempt to destroy evidence, the UN report said. Due to security restrictions, investigators were unable to access the villages and instead spoke to survivors and witnesses at a UN peace base in a nearby town where people had taken refuge.
The report comes amid a flurry of tit-for-tat allegations by both groups accusing each other of atrocities. While a ceasefire was agreed last month, analysts say the new attacks could lead to more violence.
“Despite M23’s recent statements of readiness to withdraw, the group’s attacks on civilians could potentially indicate an escalation of the conflict and are likely to lead to further violence between M23 and other armed groups, some of whom some have also committed violations. Civilians, as always, will pay the price,” said Daniel Levine-Spound, a Congolese researcher at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
M23 did not immediately respond to the findings of the UN investigation, but has previously dismissed similar allegations as propaganda. It said it is committed to adhering to the ceasefire agreed in Angola in November. Lawrence Kanyuka, the rebel group’s political spokesman, told The Associated Press over the phone that M23 has the right to defend itself if it comes under attack.
However, the group has gained ground in recent weeks, approaching Goma and expanding into Masisi, making it hard to believe that the rebels are only acting in self-defense.
“When you see how much ground they’ve gained since October, it’s hard to believe the argument that they’re just defending themselves,” said Eliora Henzler, coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker. “The problem is that it is still not clear to us what they want. It’s hard to understand what they see as an endgame.”
In an effort to help the Congolese government stabilize the country, the Council of the European Union on Thursday added eight names to a list of those subject to restrictive measures, including M23 spokesman Willy Ngoma and four other armed groups. groups in Congo, a council statement said. Measures include an entry ban for the EU and an asset freeze. Most of the people on the list are said to be responsible for serious human rights violations and for perpetuating the conflict in Congo, the EU said.
The violence exacerbates a serious humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced and live in appalling conditions in damp schools, churches and stadiums. Locals want the Congolese government to do more to stop the violence, but say they will not support negotiations with a ruthless group like M23.
“I would like our government to start fighting and finish off the M23 rebels and refuse negotiations with these terrorists,” said Stephanie Mbafumoja, a resident of the nearby town of Beni. “Why negotiate with them? It is enough to destroy them to bring peace back to the Congo.”
Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press reporter Jean-Yves Kamale contributed from Kinshasa.