UNITED NATIONS Democratic Republic of Congo troops raped and pillaged in Minova after fleeing to the eastern town as M23 rebels advanced, while insurgents killed civilians and looted when they took the nearby provincial capital Goma last month, the U.N. said on Friday.
Congolese troops, aided by a U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO, have been battling the M23 rebels - who U.N. experts and Congo say are backed by neighboring Rwanda - for the past eight months in the resource-rich east of the country.
Kinshasa regained control of Goma on Monday after M23 rebels withdrew as a U.N. Security Council group of experts presented new evidence alleging the M23 had received "direct support" from the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) to capture the city on November 20.
"Preliminary investigations by MONUSCO indicate that several human rights violations, including rape and looting, were committed by FARDC (Congolese army) elements (in Minova)," U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters in New York.
"MONUSCO cannot confirm the reported figure of 72 rapes but is on the ground conducting further investigations," he said. "MONUSCO is also able to confirm several serious human rights violations, including the killing and wounding of civilians as well as looting, committed by the M23 in Goma."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who briefed the Security Council on Friday on the U.N. mission in Congo, said peacekeepers were regularly patrolling camps housing Congolese displaced by the fighting to prevent further rights violations.
He also said he discussed with the 15-member council some options for altering or boosting the U.N. mission to cope with the eastern rebellion. MONUSCO has more than 17,000 troops but is stretched thin across a nation the size of Western Europe and struggles to fulfill its mandate of protecting civilians.
Ladsous said options included additional "force enablers" - such as helicopters and drones - support for the Joint Verification Mechanism, a regional body created to investigate incidents between Congo and Rwanda, or the creation of an international neutral force to fight the rebels, which has been proposed by countries in the Great Lakes region.
A group of experts has reported to the U.N. Security Council that Rwandan troops are reinforcing M23 operations and supplying weapons and ammunition, while Rwandan Defense Minister James Kabarebe has been commanding the entire rebellion from Kigali.
The Congolese government says Rwanda is orchestrating the revolt to grab resources. U.N. experts say the rebellion is partly funded by traders in Rwanda who are profiting from tin, tungsten and tantalum smuggled across the border from mines in eastern Congo.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied the allegations by the U.N. experts and the Congolese government.
The M23 rebels, who include hundreds of mutinous Congolese soldiers, said they took up arms over what they call the government's failure to respect a March 23, 2009, peace deal.
The fighting was also partly sparked by President Joseph Kabila's plan to arrest former Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of enlisting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution and rape.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Eric Beech)