(Adds U.N. comments)
By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, May 2 United Nations investigators "ignored, minimized or shelved" allegations of serious abuses committed by Indian and Pakistani peacekeepers in Congo, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
Confidential U.N. documents made public for the first time by the rights group detail witness accounts that peacekeepers smuggled gold, traded weapons and ammunition with rebels and militia, and blocked efforts to disarm rebel fighters.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said little effort was made to investigate reports of abuses, mostly in Congo's lawless eastern borderlands -- a patchwork of rebel and militia strongholds where most of the peacekeepers are based.
The group also made public an independent, external review of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the U.N. internal investigations office, which called the body dysfunctional and said it should be scrapped.
"Peacekeepers worldwide play an essential and invaluable role," Human Rights Watch's U.N. advocacy director Steve Crawshaw wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday.
"But the U.N.'s failure to investigate its own crimes does nothing to keep the peace. Instead, it undermines peacekeeping efforts and the reputation of the U.N. itself."
In New York, spokesman Farhan Haq said the United Nations took "these allegations very seriously," declining further comment.
The United Nations has consistently denied allegations, which have repeatedly appeared in media reports over the past year, that such abuses have occurred on a large scale in eastern Congo.
"Only a few individual cases were discovered, and the results were transmitted to the respective countries," Kemal Saiki, spokesman for Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, said on Friday.
He said investigations by the OIOS had found "no credible evidence" that arms trafficking had taken place.
GUNS FOR GOLD AND IVORY
But the documents showed that at least two witnesses, a Congolese army officer and a U.N. interpreter, reported that in late 2005, Pakistani peacekeepers in the eastern Ituri district traded arms for gold with a militia they were meant to disarm.
Two militia members later said they were involved in the scheme. Human Rights Watch said they were never subsequently interviewed by the OIOS, but U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno said this week the OIOS had interviewed them twice.
"On both occasions they denied ever receiving weapons from U.N. peacekeepers," he wrote on Tuesday to the British Broadcasting Corporation over a report on the issue on Monday.
In early February 2008, OIOS investigators completed a 34-page preliminary report on accusations of similar abuses by Indian soldiers in violence-ravaged North Kivu province.
Of 44 allegations against them originally investigated, 12 contained "direct evidence" of misconduct but were not pursued due to time and resource constraints. Investigators found "corroborative evidence" to support another six allegations.
Among those were charges that peacekeepers gave ammunition to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in exchange for ivory from elephants poached in Congo's forests.
The rebels are composed in part of ex-Rwandan military and Interahamwe militia responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
Indian peacekeepers were also accused of sending FDLR fighters who tried to surrender back to their commanders and of selling rations to the rebels.
"Some of the allegations are so serious and the potential consequences of taking no action so grave, that they should not be left unexamined," the report said.
A four-page memorandum written three weeks later found Indian peacekeepers had been involved in buying counterfeit gold but made no mention of the more serious accusations.
The independent review of the OIOS, commissioned by the United Nations and also released by Human Rights Watch on Friday, called the organization "a breeding ground for certain senior managers who ... destroyed the trust and reputation of the division."
It called for top-to-bottom reform of the body or its replacement by a new organization .
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by John O'Callaghan) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http:/africa.reuters.com/)