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In Eastern Congo, the good guys can be worse than the bad guys

Retreating government troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo carried out a "systematic" attack late last year against civilians in the town of Minova, South Kivu, engaging in widespread looting, murder, and the rape or sexual abuse of 102 women and 33 girls, including some as young as six, according to a U.N. report released today.

The abuses in Minova followed a major military offensive by army mutineers, known as the M23, who seized control of the regional capital of Goma and Sake last November, forcing government troops to take flight. The abuses by units of the Congolese army, known as the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) "were perpetrated in a systematic manner and with extreme violence, mostly as the FARDC units retreated from the front lines and regrouped in and around the town of Minova."

The U.N. report -- carried out by the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office and covering the fall of Goma and Sake and the subsequent government retreat from Nov. 15 to Dec. 22 -- also documented multiple cases of human rights abuses by the M23. Following the capture of Goma and Sake, M23 combatants "perpetrated gross human rights violations," including "59 cases of sexual violence, of which 58 were case of rape by M23 combatants in Goma and surrounding areas. At least 11 civilians were arbitrarily executed and ate least a further two were victims of arbitrary execution by the M23."

The abuses by government forces has proven particularly embarrassing for the United Nations, which has provided military support to the two Congolese units accused of carrying out some of the worst crimes. The U.N. -- which initially battled the M23 in support of the Congolese army -- informed the government in Kinshasa that they were reconsidering their support for the army units based in the area where the abuses occurred.

In April 2012, Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel and alleged war criminal who had been integrated into Congolese army, launched a mutiny. The armed insurgents -- allegedly backed by the Rwandan government - quickly seized control of the Rutshuru in North Kivu, before launching a raid against the towns of Goma and Sake in late November.

Thousands of Congolese government forces who had held the towns beat a hasty, chaotic retreat, looting homes and shops as they headed towards the town of Minova. One man who resisted their attempts to loot his home "was beaten with the butt of a rifle and punched." He died several days later. A 14 year-old boy was shot dead when he tried to flee two soldiers seeking to steal his goat.

"Most of the cases followed a similar modus operandi. FARDC soldiers entered houses, usually in groups of three to six, and after threatening the inhabitants, looted whatever they could find," reads the U.N. report. "One or two of the soldiers would leave with the looted goods and at least one would stand guard as the remaining FARDC soldiers raped women and girls in the house. Victims were threatened with death if they shouted, some were raped at gunpoint. Most victims were raped by more than one soldier."

The situation was not much better in areas occupied by the mutineers.

The M23 rebels engaged in widespread looting, murder, and sexual assault, including rape and sexual abuses against women, mostly the wives of fleeing government troops, at the Katindo military camp in Goma.

"As the M23 entered Goma on November 2012, one man was shot and killed in a street in Ndosho area of Goma by combatants who accused him of being a Mayi Mayi," according to the report. "On the same day, a 16-year-old boy was shot dead by M23 combatants for suspected collaboration with the FARDC. A number of victims were deliberately targeted and shot at close range by M23 combatants who entered their homes."

The U.N. report's findings echo many those of Human Rights Watch, which in February published a detailed report on human rights abuses by Congolese government forces and the mutineers.

Under U.N. pressure, military prosecutors from North Kivu and South Kivu have opened investigations into the allegations of abuses by the FARDC. In December, 11 government soldiers were arrested. "including two for murder, but only two for related cases of rape." Twelve senior army officers have been suspended.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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