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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government has also joined Uganda government and dismissed charges by Human Right watch that Resistance Army rebels had killed over 300 people in December, saying “no more than 25” had died.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the weekend accused the Ugandan group, whose leaders are wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC), of massacring 321 civilians and abducting 250 others in a previously unreported four-day “rampage” in northeastern DRC in December.
The UN mission in the DRC (MONUC) said Tuesday its own investigation, not yet officially released, found that at least 290 people were killed and about 150 abducted.
DR Congo’s Justice Minister, Lessa Bambi Luzolo, said the HRW claim was “clearly exaggerated”.
“When it comes to victims in the civilian population, the number of victims is no more than 25,” he said in a statement in Kinshasa. “There were no massacres as stated in the report, but a few people attacked in passing by uncontrolled elements of the LRA,” Luzolo said.
“It’s about events that happened in December 2009 and the Non-Governmental Organisation speaks about it as if it was yesterday,” he said.
The Human Rights Watch report details the four-day rampage last December, which has only now come to light. It says the attack took place in the Makombo area in DR Congo, a remote area with virtually no communication with the outside world, which is why it went unreported for months.
In February, HRW received the first signals of the attack, after which the UN sent a mission to the area to investigate. The Lord’s Resistance Army was formed in Uganda in the 1980s and has been carrying out brutal attacks on civilians in Uganda and neighbouring countries since then, in which thousands of people have died.
Anneke van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch in London said that the Makombo massacre is one of the worst ever committed by the LRA, despite the Ugandan and Congolese governments branding the rebel group as a “spent force”. Uganda’s military said on Monday it was sceptical of the Human Rights Watch report, saying the LRA was too weak to have carried out such a large-scale attack.
“In 2005, the army was pushed out of Uganda and has been relatively inactive there”, Ms Van Woudenberg says, “but it has been operating in Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan since then. So it has now become a very active regional threat”.
In December’s massacre, LRA forces attacked ten villages, capturing, killing and abducting over 300 civilians, including women and children. Some of the victims were burned to death. Children and adults who managed to escape have provided accounts of the rebels’ extreme brutality, the report says.
“The army is known for abducting children who are then turned into combatants for the group through violence and mind control”, says Ms Van Woudenberg. “This also happened in December. The rebels very quickly provided military training to the abducted children, often forcing them to participate in killings or in killing other children who had disobeyed the rules. These are methods which are very typical of the LRA”.
With only 1,000 peacekeeping troops in the region, the United Nations mission in DR Congo has been unable to protect the civilians against the LRA attack. “We really need more troops there to deal with this”, Ms Van Woudenberg says. “We also need greater coordination between the various UN missions and the governments in the region”.
On Monday, the UN reacted to the report by calling for a new strategy in the region. The head of the UN mission in DR Congo, Alan Doss, told reporters that LRA’s practice of working in small, mobile groups meant improved intelligence gathering and air mobility were needed. “Even small groups can create havoc. Their best weapon is fear”, Mr Doss said.
“And that’s a very effective weapon”, says Ms Van Woudenberg. “The LRA is only 400 combatants strong, but yet they have the capacity to cause extreme harm. In northeastern Congo alone, more than a quarter of a million people have fled their homes after December’s attacks. This is a humanitarian catastrophe caused by only a few people. We really feel the UN, but also the EU and the US, should step forward to provide greater assistance”.
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