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Is the U.S. blocking a controversial U.N. report to shield Rwanda?

A senior Congolese diplomat lambasted the United States and other Security Council members for delaying the release of a U.N. investigation linking Rwanda to a military mutiny led by one of the world's most notorious accused war criminals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Atoki Ileka, Congo's ambassador to France, told Turtle Bay that Security Council members mentioned to him during a visit to New York this week that the United States had sought to hold up publication of the findings. 

Ileka's remarks, made in a telephone interview from Paris this morning, came one day after the United States asked the council to delay the release of the Group of Expert findings for two weeks to give the Rwandan government a chance to review the report, according to council diplomats. "We cannot wait for the United States and other members of the Security Council to find a convenient way to protect Rwanda," Ileka said.

A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Payton Knopf, denied that the United States is trying to quash the report or shield Rwanda from scrutiny. 

"The U.S. is not blocking a report by the DRC group of experts," Knopf told Turtle Bay. "The United States asked a number of relevant questions and is carefully studying the information presented by the experts in anticipation of council discussions on June 26."

The dispute dates to late March, when Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel leader who had been integrated into the Congolese Army as a general, led a group of hundreds of his former rebels under the banner of the M23 Movement in an armed mutiny.

Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers, and his forces suffered an initial military setback, fleeing their stronghold in the town of Massisi to a site near the border with Rwanda, which has since begun to supply them with financial support, weapons, and recruits, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, which interviewed dozens of Rwandan nationals, including children, who claimed to have been forcibly conscripted.

"The leaders of the M23 figure among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world for that matter," Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said of the movement this week. "Many of them have appalling track records including allegations of involvement in mass rape, and of responsibility for massacres and for the recruitment and use of children.... I fear the very real possibility that they will inflict additional horrors on the civilian population as they attack villages."

Earlier this month, a panel of U.N. experts monitoring a U.N. arms embargo in Congo on behalf of the U.N. Security Council completed an interim report into illicit arms smuggling into the region. But the public release of the report has been held up over the fate of a controversial annex that delves into reports of Rwandan support for mutineers in eastern Congo, according to council diplomat and human rights advocates.

On June 13, the so-called Group of Experts informed the Security Council's sanctions committee, which has representatives from the council's 15 states, that it would only publish the findings of the annex if the council agreed to make it public.

The experts reasoned that the publicity surrounding the release of the findings would make it more difficult for the Rwandan government to retaliate against suspected informants.

The U.N.'s findings apparently confirm the previous reporting by Human Rights Watch and identify top Rwandan officials involved in the effort.  

"I haven't seen the annex but I'm told that it names top officials in Rwanda who are allegedly involved in the effort to back the mutineers, and it goes to extremely senior levels" of the government, said Anneke Van Woudenberg, Human Rights Watch's senior Africa researcher, and the author of the report on Congo.

Ileka, who previously served as Congo's U.N. envoy, traveled to U.N. headquarters from Paris this week to press the United States and other Security Council members to approve the release of the group of expert's findings. In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council, Ileka called on the U.N. to condemn Rwanda's aggression in eastern Congo.

"The U.N. sanctions committee now needs to do its job and publish the information, denounce the violation of the arms embargo and put pressure on Rwanda to halt any support to Bosco Ntaganda and the M23 mutineers," Ileka wrote in a cover letter. "The findings of the group should not be buried, ignored or pushed to a later date until they are published. Efforts by any Security Council members to try avoid publication of the findings is shameful and does nothing to help the people of eastern Congo."

Woudenberg said that the U.S. mission also provided a more forceful signal to its U.N. colleagues last week that it wanted to block the publication of the annex, arguing that it would be better to pursue the matter through quiet diplomacy. The U.S. position, she added, had "pissed off" other officials in the State Department, who favored the report's release.

The debate has since evolved, with the United States now agreeing to the ultimate release of the annex but asserting that Rwanda should at least have a right of reply, a concession that is not routinely offered countries that are accused of violating sanctions, she said. U.S. officials deny there was a division between the U.S. mission in New York and the State Department.

On Tuesday, the Group of Experts met again with the U.N. sanctions committee, where the United States forged a compromise that will result in the release of the interim report next week, but would delay publication of the controversial annex for at least a couple of weeks. During that time, the Group of Experts would brief the Rwandan government on its findings, according to a council diplomat.

"While I will not comment on particulars because committee deliberations are confidential, the committee discussed the recent unrest in eastern Congo, which is of serious concern to the United States and the council," Knopf said. "The council takes into account all information when studying situations of unrest and the group of experts findings are important. We and the other members of the committee are studying the findings carefully and will continue to discuss their implications once the report is public."

In the meantime, the dispute has sparked intensive speculation over the fate of the experts' findings in the blogosphere, including this account at the Texas in Africa blog, and a feud on Twitter, with Human Rights Watch asserting that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the State Department had quarreled over the decision to release the report.

"U.S. blocks UN report that confirms @HRW finding that #Rwanda military is backing #Congo warlord wanted by #ICC," Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch tweeted, citing a report in the Guardian containing the allegation. "U.S. Amb Rice, over opposition of State Dept colleagues, seems to put loyalty to [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame over concern for Congo victims."

Rice's spokesman, Mark Kornblau, fired back "Not true. You have it wrong."

"No. False. U.S. is NOT blocking," he added in another tweet.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch