Congo Rebel Group M23 Says It Is 'Better Than The Government,' Despite Committing War Crimes

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The rebel group M23 is committing serious war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. The atrocities include child soldier recruitment, increasingly frequent rapes and summary executions.

Human Rights Watch points to 137 youths who it was able to confirm were forced into M23 service, 33 who were killed when they tried to escape, and 46 women and girls who were raped, often by multiple men.

"When we were with the M23, they said [we had a choice] and could stay with them or we could die. Lots of people tried to escape. Some were found, and then that was immediately their death," one young male recruit told HRW.

M23 was formed in the spring of this year, when defectors from the official DRC army banded together to mount a resistance. Many members of this group were previously linked to the National Congress for the Defense of the People, which also fought against the government.

Rwanda had supported that older group until 2009, when it was nominally absorbed into the regular army. But now that M23 has splintered away, it is widely alleged that those fighters are once again receiving military support from Rwanda.

The HRW report called on the Rwanda government to end its support for M23, warning that any assistance could engender further atrocities against both civilians and fighters in the DRC.

Rwanda denies involvement in the M23 conflict.

"This kind of report, by Human Rights Watch, based on the flimsiest imaginable evidence, is not only unhelpful, it is dangerous. The situation on the ground is volatile but improving," said Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, according to Reuters.

M23 also responded to the report, via spokesman Amani Kabasha. "I know M23 is not paradise but I think it is better than the government," he said, according to the Financial Times.

This complaint is not without merit. Despite an abundance of natural resources in this verdant and expansive country, hunger and poverty are widespread in the DRC. Infrastructure is essentially non-existent. The government in Kinshasa is headed by Joseph Kabila, a dictator whose elections to office are widely condemned as rigged, but whose citizens are too poor to stage effective protests.

But the brutalities committed by M23 fighters can only worsen DRC's prospects for stability. The stories recorded by HRW workers -- stories of gang rapes, senseless murders, ghastly torture and random abductions -- are horrific.

With no end in sight as the violence continues, HRW demands stronger intervention from international groups.

"Congolese civilians have endured the brunt of wartime abuses," said senior researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg in the report. "The UN and its member states should urgently step up their efforts to protect civilians, and donor governments providing aid or military assistance to Rwanda should urgently review their programs to ensure they are not fueling serious human rights abuses."

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