updated 2/15/2005 9:09:32 PM ET 2005-02-16T02:09:32

Congo’s army has sentenced 21 soldiers to death for looting and rape during clashes in the east last December, a military official said on Tuesday, noting that such sentences have always been commuted in recent years.

Six more soldiers received jail sentences for disobeying orders during the unrest in the volatile North Kivu province, said the official, who is close to the army high command.

Congo’s military has not carried out death sentences in recent years, reducing them to long prison terms instead.

The official, who declined to be named, said the sentences had symbolic value in showing how seriously commanders viewed the crimes.

Congo’s lawless east is regularly shaken by violence despite the end of the country’s five-year war in 2003. Former enemies are meant to have united in a national army but the factions remain largely separate and clashes break out sporadically.

The violence in North Kivu involved local troops from the former rebel RCD-Goma group and soldiers sent by the national army command to reinforce the border with Rwanda.

Fighters looted and trashed shops and homes around the town of Kanyabayonga and local people continue to complain of frequent harassment by soldiers.

Twenty soldiers were sentenced to death for looting while one was convicted of rape, the official said. They were found guilty under the military justice system earlier this month.

The ongoing violence in Democratic Republic of Congo’s east is one factor threatening planned elections, meant to draw a line under the war. Officials have said it is unlikely the polls can be held by the target date of the end of June.

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