By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, May 3 (Reuters) - Allegations that United Nations soldiers in Congo traded in gold and arms are unfair and could prompt some countries to withdraw from peacekeeping operations in the world, the top U.N. official in Congo said on Saturday.
Media reports of serious abuses by Indian and Pakistani peacekeepers based in Democratic Republic of Congo's lawless eastern borderlands have repeatedly dogged the U.N. Congo mission, which has also been hit by a series of sex scandals.
The United Nations has consistently said inquiries by its Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigations branch failed to turn up evidence of widespread abuse.
However, on Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) published confidential U.N. documents detailing witness accounts of misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers, and said investigators "ignored, minimised, or shelved" corroborated allegations.
In an interview with Reuters on Saturday, Alan Doss, head of the U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC), refuted the allegations.
"To somehow imply that there's some kind of massive cover-up, that there are networks of trading in arms and gold and all the rest of it, I think is unfair," he said.
"It will also lead in some cases to countries deciding 'Hey, if this is going to happen, then we don't want to be a part of peacekeeping, because it's damaging our reputation'," he added.
The vast majority of MONUC's nearly 18,000-strong force is based in Congo's east, which has remained a violent, volatile patchwork of rebel fiefdoms and militia-controlled zones despite the official end of a 1998-2003 war.
The documents released by HRW from an OIOS investigation showed at least two witnesses reporting in late 2005 that Pakistani peacekeepers in the eastern Ituri district traded arms for gold with a militia they were meant to disarm.
At the time, Ituri was gripped by a inter-ethnic conflict which pitted foreign-backed militias against one another and killed more than 70,000 people.
Another preliminary OIOS report completed earlier this year found "corroborated" evidence to support similar allegations in violence-torn eastern North Kivu province, where U.N. troops are tasked with monitoring a shaky January ceasefire deal.
The report documented evidence that Indian peacekeepers in North Kivu gave ammunition to Rwandan rebels in exchange for ivory poached in Congo's forests. The U.N. soldiers were also accused of sending insurgent fighters who tried to surrender back to their commanders and of selling rations to the rebels.
Details of some of the alleged abuses were first reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in May last year.
U.N. officials later said only a handful of less serious charges were ever proven, and that the investigation results were turned over to Indian and Pakistani military authorities.
Earlier this week, the BBC again reported the allegations, claiming the U.N. deliberately buried investigation findings.
Doss called the BBC story and subsequent media reports unfounded, adding they tarnished the positive role peacekeepers had played in restoring peace in much of Congo after the war.
"People have forgotten that we have lost dozens of lives in this mission, often in a very brutal manner," he said.
More than 100 U.N. peacekeepers and personnel have been killed in Congo since the mission started in 2000.
"Let's punish the individuals who do wrong, and there are individuals who do wrong. I'm the first to admit that. But let's not please smear everybody with that brush," Doss said.
Experts estimate Congo's 1998-2003 war and the humanitarian catastrophe it spawned killed some 5.4 million people, mostly from violence-linked hunger and disease.
This makes the conflict in the vast, former Belgian colony the deadliest on the planet since World War Two. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Mary Gabriel)