Image: Bodies
Jerome Delay  /  AP
The bodies of two people, who villagers allege were shot by rebel soldiers loyal to Laurent Nkunda, are seen outside a hut in the village of Kiwanja in eastern Congo, on Thursday. 
updated 11/9/2008 9:55:12 AM ET 2008-11-09T14:55:12

Rebels and pro-government militiamen executed civilians this week in two waves of terror that the top U.N envoy to Congo said Saturday amount to war crimes — ones that highlight the inability of undermanned U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians.

Meanwhile, Congo's army advanced toward rebel lines Saturday, with renewed fighting near the provincial capital of Goma threatening a fragile cease-fire.

Fighting broke out Friday near Kibati, about six miles north of Goma. By Saturday morning the army had moved more than half a mile north into a no man's land that had been unpatrolled since the rebels called a cease-fire 10 days ago after routing the army.

'War crimes'
U.N. envoy Alan Doss said "war crimes that we cannot tolerate" were committed at Kiwanja, by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's fighters and by Mai Mai militiamen supporting the government.

U.N. investigators on Friday visited 11 graves containing what villagers said were 26 bodies, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said. New York-based Human Rights Watch said the death toll could be higher.

"We are getting reports of more than 50 dead, but we are still in the process of confirming that information," Anneke Van Woudenberg, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press.

Van den Wildenberg and Dietrich said it appeared the rebels committed many more executions than the militia.

U.N. peacekeepers have a well-established base in Kiwanja, about 50 miles north of Goma, but it has only 120 soldiers in the town of 30,000 to 50,000.

They were pinned down under crossfire for some of the first day of the killings Tuesday, and were hampered because militiamen were hiding in houses among civilians, military spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich told The Associated Press.

'Very difficult' to protect
Peacekeepers also were trying to deter rebel attacks on two other towns, Nyanzale and Kikuku, on Wednesday when the killings in Kiwanja continued, he said.

The peacekeepers carried out small patrols in Kiwanja and were fired at by militia, he said. The peacekeepers returned fire.

"It's very difficult to protect thousands of civilians, especially at night," Dietrich said.

Doss told a news conference, "Sadly we can't protect every person in the Kivus (provinces)."

Regional leaders at a summit Friday in Nairobi condemned the peacekeepers' failure to protect civilians — the primary mandate of the 17,000-man force in Congo, a country the size of Western Europe where dozens of armed groups daily perpetrate gross human rights abuses.

An AP reporter in Kiwanja on Thursday saw the bodies of two men lying on the main road where they had been shot, less than a mile from the U.N. camp.

Witnesses said rebels had targeted people from the Nande tribe, from which the Mai Mai draws most of its fighters.

On Friday, six relatives wrapped the body of 49-year-old Zawadi Katsuva in a tarpaulin and carried it to a shallow grave in the back yard of his home. It is not known how many such victims may go uncounted, as Congolese bury their dead as soon possible because of the tropical heat.

Two waves of terror
Katsuva's brother Willem Kambale, 66, said he watched more than 20 rebels come to the house, demand money and a mobile phone and, when they did not get either, shoot his brother behind the left ear.

U.N. officials say residents suffered two waves of terror: first the Mai Mai militia came and killed people it accused of supporting the rebels; then the rebels won control and killed those they charged had supported the militia.

The rebels also looted and burned homes and a hotel, witnesses said.

They killed many victims execution style, with bullets to the head, residents told the AP. Some residents said the rebels dressed the dead, most of them young men, in military uniforms.

"It's not justice," Kiwanja municipal judge Jean Katembo said. The rebels "kill people with no respect for the law."

Crimes against humanity?
Rebel leader Nkunda already is accused of crimes against humanity, and Congo's government issued an international arrest warrant against him after he defected from the army in 2004. It cites war crimes including massacres of civilians in 2002, when he was still in the army, and in 2004 when he took his rebellion to eastern Bukavu town.

Nkunda has accused the government of committing war crimes.

More than 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since Nkunda launched a new offensive Aug. 28 and captured large swaths of eastern Congo as the army retreated. The conflict is fueled by ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda. Nkunda first said he was fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who participated in the genocide and then fled to Congo.

Lately he has said he is fighting to "liberate" all Congo from an allegedly corrupt government.

Thousands more refugees were on the move again Saturday. Some have been on the run for weeks, hefting bundles of belongings, children and goats as they try to keep ahead of the violence.

They trudged past hundreds of soldiers guarding the road toward Goma. Among them, AP reporters saw Portuguese-speaking black soldiers wearing green berets with pins in the shape of a map of Angola. Doss said Saturday he did not have direct independent confirmation that Angolan soldiers were in Congo.

The presence of Angolans in the volatile region could be seen as a provocation by neighboring Rwanda, raising tensions and fears that Congo's conflicts could again spill over its borders.

Congo asked Angola for support Oct. 29, as the rebels advanced toward Goma, which is on the border with Rwanda.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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