GENEVA (AP) — The U.N.'s top human rights official on Tuesday named five Congo rebel leaders who she says may be responsible for war crimes, a rare step prompted by concerns that their group — known as M23 — could continue to rape and kill civilians in the east of the country.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, frequently speaks out about serious abuses being committed around the world, but it is unusual for her to single out individuals unless they are suspected of being responsible for large-scale atrocities.
"The leaders of the M23 figure among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in the world for that matter," Pillay said in a statement issued by her Geneva-based office.
The newly formed group is composed of former rebel fighters who were integrated into the army after a 2009 peace deal but have since deserted again.
Pillay named the group's leaders as Col. Sultani Makenga; Col. Baudouin Ngaruye, Col. Innocent Zimurinda; Col. Innocent Kaina; and Gen. Bosco Ntaganda.
"Many of them may have been responsible for war crimes," she said, noting their "appalling track records including allegations of involvement in mass rape, and of responsibility for massacres and for the recruitment and use of children."
Ntaganda is already wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges for recruiting and using child soldiers between 2002 and 2003.
Makenga, too, recruited child soldiers and is suspected of involvement in a 2008 massacre in which his then group, the CNDP, executed at least 67 civilians in Kiwandja in Congo's North Kivu region. The U.N. also linked him to the 2007 killing by another rebel group, the FARDC, of 14 civilians in Buramba, North Kivu.
Fighting between rebels and the army has flared up again in North Kivu since April, causing more than 200,000 people to flee their homes.
Abuses attributed to Ngaruye include recruitment of child soldiers and involvement in the killing of up to 139 people in Shalio, North Kivu, in April 2009. The FARDC troops believed responsible also abducted about 40 women, some of whom were gang-raped and mutilated, the U.N. said.
Zimurinda is also alleged to have had command responsibility for the Kiwandja and Shalio massacres. The U.N. Security Council placed him on a sanctions and travel ban list in Dec. 2010.
Pillay said Kaina "is alleged to have been involved in a range of human rights abuses including crimes committed in Ituri, Orientale province, in 2004." He was arrested by Congolese authorities in June 2006, but released without trial less than three years later.
"Every effort must be made to hold these men, and the soldiers under their command, accountable for human rights violations committed against civilians, both for crimes committed within the context of the current mutiny, and also for offences committed previously," Pillay said.
"I fear the very real possibility that they will inflict additional horrors on the civilian population as they attack villages in eastern DRC," she added.