U.N. reviewing Congo army support over M23 abuse allegations

UNITED NATIONS Wed Jul 17, 2013 9:56pm EDT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attends a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande (not pictured) in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris July 15, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Charles Platiau.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attends a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande (not pictured) in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris July 15, 2013 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau.

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations is reviewing support to Democratic Republic of Congo army units accused of desecrating the corpses of rebels and mistreating detainees, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday during renewed fighting in the country's east.

U.N. peacekeepers had raised the reported abuse of M23 rebels with the Congolese army and welcomed steps by the army "to investigate these claims and to hold the perpetrators of these acts accountable," Ban's press office said in a statement.

Congolese army forces, or FARDC, supported by helicopters, attacked M23 rebel positions near the eastern city of Goma on Tuesday in a third day of heavy fighting that has forced hundreds of villagers to flee their homes.

"The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about reports of alleged mistreatment of M23 detainees and desecration of corpses of M23 combatants by the Congolese armed forces," Ban's press office said.

The 17,000-strong U.N. force, known as MONUSCO, and Congo troops have struggled over the past decade to stem a conflict involving dozens of armed groups and complicated by national and ethnic rivalries. A new 3,000-member U.N. Intervention Brigade was recently deployed to fight and disarm rebels in the east.

"MONUSCO has launched the process of reviewing its support to FARDC units suspected of being involved in these incidents," said Ban's statement. "The Secretary-General calls on the DRC to bring the perpetrators of these reported acts to justice."

The United Nations threatened in February to withdraw support for two Congolese battalions after soldiers raped at least 97 women and 33 girls, some as young as 6, in an eastern town after they fled from advancing M23 rebels in late November.

The peacekeeping mission decided to keep working with the battalions after 12 senior officers, including the commanders and deputy commanders, were suspended and about a dozen soldiers charged over the rapes in Minova, according to a U.N. human rights report.

M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal. That deal ended a previous rebellion and led to the rebels' integration into the army, but they have since deserted.

A report by U.N. experts last month said that M23 recruited fighters in neighboring Rwanda with the aid of sympathetic Rwandan army officers, while elements of the Congolese army have cooperated with Rwandan Hutu rebel group FDLR.

Rwanda and Congo have both denied the accusations.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Peter Cooney)