Amnesty International reports that fighters from the Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 rebel group killed at least 20 men and raped dozens of women and girls in the country's east in November. The M23 have dismissed the claims.
Following the publication of the Amnesty report this Friday, the M23 militia – which stepped up its offensive in regions near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda last year – dismissed the accusations, saying they were part of a smear campaign.
The NGO's reported death toll was much lower than estimates from the United Nations, which said in December that the rebels had executed at least 131 people in reprisal killings in a campaign of murder, rape and looting in Kishishe and Bambo villages.
Amnesty says it interviewed survivors and witnesses who described "groups of M23 fighters going house-to-house in Kishishe, summarily killing every adult male they found and subjecting scores of women to rape, including gang rape."
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M23 claim to 'protect' local population
Based on that evidence, Amnesty estimated that M23 killed at least 20 men and raped at least 66 women and girls, mainly in Kishishe, between 21 and 30 November.
M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma dismissed the report, saying "There were no serious investigations because they did not come to the field," adding that none of his soldiers would commit rape.
The militia repeatedly maintain they are protecting the local population from indiscriminate attacks and bombardments on heavily populated areas.
However, Amnesty says its findings are based on research conducted on the ground in M23-occupied territory.
DRC accuses Rwanda of backing M23 insurrection
Since May 2022, the Congolese army has been engaged in heavy fighting with M23, which is waging its most sustained offensive since a 2012-2013 insurrection that saw the militia group seize vast swathes of territory.
The conflict has sparked a diplomatic crisis between the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the rebels, including by sending its own troops into eastern Congo.
Kigali denies any involvement.
The M23 and its predecessor groups have claimed to defend Tutsi interests against ethnic Hutu militias whose leaders participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Amnesty has called on the Congolese authorities to follow through on a pledge to investigate the alleged atrocities and hold the perpetrators to account.
"The scale and brutality of these mass rapes is particularly shocking. M23's actions in the Kishishe area constitute war crimes," the NGO said.