updated 7/30/2007 2:01:14 PM ET 2007-07-30T18:01:14

Sexual atrocities in Congo’s volatile province of South Kivu extend “far beyond rape” and include sexual slavery, forced incest and cannibalism, a U.N. human rights expert said Monday.

Yakin Erturk called the situation in South Kivu the worst she has ever seen in four years as the global body’s special investigator for violence against women. Sexual violence throughout Congo is “rampant,” she said, blaming rebel groups, the armed forces and national police.

“These acts amount to war crimes and, in some cases, crimes against humanity,” said Erturk, who just came back from an 11-day mission there.

Most of the worst abuses have been committed by rebel groups, many of whom fled to Congo after taking part in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, she said.

“The atrocities perpetrated by these armed groups are of an unimaginable brutality that goes far beyond rape,” she said in a statement. “Women are brutally gang raped, often in front of their families and communities. In numerous cases, male relatives are forced at gun point to rape their own daughters, mothers or sisters.”

The statement continued: “Frequently women are shot or stabbed in their genital organs, after they are raped. Women, who survived months of enslavement, told me that their tormentors had forced them to eat excrement or the human flesh of murdered relatives.”

Saying the situation required immediate attention from Congo’s government and the international community, Erturk reported that 4,500 cases of sexual violence had already been counted so far this year. The U.N. investigator said the actual number of incidents was probably much higher.

Army units allegedly target civilians
The Panzi hospital, a specialized institution in Bukavu near the Rwandan border, sees about 3,500 women a year suffering fistula and other severe genital injuries resulting from atrocities, Erturk said.

The mineral-rich eastern reaches of Congo, bordering Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, are the most unstable in the country, and civilians are often killed as rival militias clash.

U.N. peacekeepers helped end a wider 1998-2002 war in Congo that engulfed six neighboring countries, and the nearly 18,000-strong force currently in Congo is the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping operation.

While rebels commit most of the worst abuses, Erturk said government forces and national police are responsible for nearly 20 percent of all cases of sexual violence reported.

Army units have deliberately targeted communities suspected of supporting militia groups “and pillage, gang rape and, in some instances, murder civilians,” she said.

Erturk, who also visited the country’s Equator province and Ituri district, said she was “shocked” to discover that police and armed forces respond to unrest with indiscriminate reprisals.

The tactics include “pillaging, torture and mass rape,” she said, citing a December incident when 70 police officers took revenge for the torching of a police station in Karawa by burning the Equator town, torturing civilians and raping at least 40 women, including an 11-year-old girl.

'A deplorable state'
No police officer has been charged or arrested in relation to the atrocities, she said, adding that similar operations have since been carried out in Bonyanga and Bongulu, also in Congo’s northwest.

“The justice system is in a deplorable state,” Erturk said. “It is overwhelmed even by the limited number of cases, in which women brave all obstacles and dare to report sexual violence. Reports of corruption and political interference in the judicial process are widespread.”

Erturk will report her findings in September to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

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