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U.N. fears Congo pullout will hurt fight against rape

KINSHASA, April 19 (Reuter) - Congolese laws against sexual violence are not being implemented and a withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers from the country would make the struggle against endemic rape “a lot more difficult,” the U.N. said.

A 38-year-old woman cleans her own dishes after her fourth fistula repair surgery in HEAL Africa hospital, Goma February 5, 2009. UNICEF estimates over 1,000 women and girls are raped per month in the Democratic Republic of Congo. REUTERS/Alissa Everett

Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, is visiting Congo, where thousands of women are raped every year, as the U.N. tries to persuade the government not to demand a hasty withdrawal of the U.N. force.

Democratic Republic of Congo has advanced legislation in place to outlaw sexual violence but Wallstrom said the country’s capacity to implement it was “near zero.”

“How will it help if (the U.N. peacekeeping mission) withdraws? Will it help the situation here? I think not ... I have a lot of fears,” she added in Kinshasa Monday.

Aid agencies and rights groups accustomed to the violence and suffering during and since Congo’s 1998-2003 war, which left millions dead, have been shocked by reports of the scale and brutality of the rapes by rebel and government forces alike.

The U.N. warning echoes a call last week by UK rights group Amnesty International, which called the situation scandalous.

With celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence this year and elections next, Congo is keen for the peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, to start withdrawing within months and wants the last blue helmet out in 2011.

But Wallstrom said the peacekeepers, who are often criticized for not doing enough, were making a difference.

“Women used to be scared to go to the market ... Now a lot of people go, and peacekeepers go with them. It has brought economic development to the region,” she said, referring to North Kivu province.

Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said keeping peacekeepers in the country would not end problems of rape and said impunity for government forces who commit crimes was becoming “rarer and rarer.”

Accurate figures for sexual violence are hard to come by as many rapes are unreported but the U.N. said at least 5,400 women had reported being raped in neighboring South Kivu in the first nine months of 2009 alone.

Government forces as well as a plethora of rebel forces are accused of the abuse. Last year, the U.N. Security Council gave the government a list of officers known to have raped women and girls.

“Three of (the officers) are still free. Cases have been opened, people punished, but too low -- soldiers, not officers,” Wallstrom said.