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More than 15,000 rapes were committed last year in the strife-torn region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where ‘peacekeepers’ are unable to fully protect civilians, a senior United Nations official has said.
With accusations now being made against DRC government troops over new cases of rape and killing in the volatile east of the country, Roger Meece, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (Monusco), said "the scale of the problem is enormous".
Meece appeared before the UN security council on Friday, and despite being unable to give details of the new attacks, he said: "The best data available, for example, suggests that over 15,000 rapes were committed last year in eastern DRC."
'Horrific' mass rapes
Meece told the council that the "horrific'' mass rapes in late July and early August by rebel groups in eastern Congo's mineral-rich Walikale region underscored the importance of protecting civilians.
But he said after the briefing that it is impossible for 18,000 UN peacekeepers to protect all civilians in the area where armed groups are operating in an area larger than Afghanistan.
The UN force "cannot serve as the complete answer to the security problems of the east,'' Meece said.
Armed groups operate over a wide area and often mix with the civilian population, he added.
"In this vast area...it is not possible for Monusco to ensure full protection for all civilians. To approach this goal would require vastly greater force levels and resources," Meece said.
'Men in uniform'
Margot Wallstrom, the UN special envoy on sexual violence against women in conflict, told the council on Thursday that government troops are raping and killing women in remote villages in the Walikale region where hundreds of women were assaulted in July and August.
She said Monusco had reported new attacks by troops who are conducting an operation to enforce a government moratorium on illegal mining and in a bid to take control of the region from rebels.
"The possibility that the same communities that were brutalized in July and August by Rwandan Hutu rebels and Mai-Mai elements are now also suffering at the hands of the Congolese army is unimaginable and unacceptable," Wallstrom said.
She has already blamed the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Mai-Mai rebels for the mass rapes in July and August.
Meece said Congolese army operations are under way in the Walikale region, primarily directed against the Mai-Mai and the FDLR. But he said he did not know if government troops were involved in rapes.
The United Nations said 303 civilians - 235 women, 13 men, 52 girls and three boys were raped in 13 villages in the Walikale area from July 30 till August 2.
In response to the mass rapes, Meece said UN ‘peacekeepers’ are establishing some new temporary operating bases in the Walikale region and are instituting other measures to improve communications with remote villages and respond more quickly to sexual attacks.
According to the UN Population Fund, there were 17,507 sexual violence attacks throughout Congo in 2009 - including more than 9,000 in North and South Kivu, which have been at the centre of the conflict in the east.
The scale of rapes and sexual violence has not diminished much this year, according to the fund, known as UNFPA, which collects data in Congo.
It said there were 7,685 attacks in Congo between January and June, including more than 4,500 in the Kivus.
Abubakar Dungus, a UNFPA spokesman, said 5,427 of the sexual attacks this year - about 70 per cent - were perpetrated "by men in uniform''. It was unclear if he was referring to soldiers or rebels.
An Indian soldier serving with the UN's MONUSCO peacekeeping mission guards the Congolese village of Luvungi on September 4, 2010.