Congo Peacekeepers' Communications Lapses Draw UN Scrutiny in Rape Case

Communications lapses between United Nations troops and villages in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo delayed the response to the rapes of at least 154 women there last month, U.S. and Russian diplomats said today.

“Clearly not everything worked the way it should have,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, president of the UN Security Council this month, told reporters after the panel was briefed on the attacks. “We are going to get to the bottom of it.”

Churkin said it was the “clear feeling” of members of the Security Council that peacekeeping troops in the region didn’t maintain adequate contact with the villages where the rapes occurred in the last week of July. The UN said it didn’t learn of the assaults until Aug. 12.

“The terrain is such that simply a visit every day or once in a week is not sufficient to have reliable information or prevent” such incidents, Churkin said.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said “processes and procedures, which we were told were designed to provide early warning and rapid response,” didn’t work in this case.

“We need to know why and what mechanisms might be put in place to ensure that this type of horror is not repeated,” Rice said. “Radios and satellite phones are among the tools out there that could conceivably be utilized.”

Accused Perpetrators

A joint UN human rights and peacekeeping team reported on Aug. 23 that elements of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, and the Mai-Mai Cheka group committed the rapes. The FDLR said they weren’t involved, Agence France-Presse reported today, citing the group’s executive secretary, Callixte Mbarushimana.

FDLR rebels have been living in eastern Congo since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, often preying on the population and exploiting the region’s natural resources. Some of the group’s Hutu leaders are accused of participating in the genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.

The Mai-Mai, community-based militias formed to defend their local territory against larger guerrilla movements, sometimes ally with the FDLR.

Roger Meece, the UN special representative for Congo, said yesterday troops based about 18 miles from where the rapes occurred learned as early as July 31 that elements of the FDLR and the Mai-Mai were in the area. The UN didn’t immediately respond because the movements weren’t considered unusual and there was no indication of an attack, he said.

Meece said that some troops passed through villages while rapes were taking place, and weren’t informed because of shame or fear of reprisals.

UN E-Mail

The New York Times reported today that a July 30 e-mail from the UN Department of Safety and Security warned UN and humanitarian aid workers to stay away from the area. The alert didn’t mention rape, the Times reported.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters he was looking into the report of the e-mail.

Meece said a review of UN procedures, including patrols and communications, was being conducted.

“Obviously something went wrong,” said Atoki Ileka, Congo’s envoy to the UN. “We should investigate very swiftly and quickly.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Congo last year and drew attention to sexual violence, said the U.S. would work with the UN and Congolese government to help improve safety for girls and women in the country.

“This horrific attack is yet another example of how sexual violence undermines efforts to achieve and maintain stability in areas torn by conflict but striving for peace,” Clinton said in a statement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent Atul Khare, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, and Margot Wallstrom, his special representative for sexual violence in Congo, to the African nation to investigate the incident. They will report to the Security Council early next month, Churkin said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bill Varner at the United Nations at wvarner@bloomberg.net

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