KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo defended on Thursday its U.N.-backed operations against Rwandan rebels, disputing the findings of a report that the mission had aggravated the conflict in its eastern borderlands.
A widely leaked report by the United Nations' own Group of Experts concluded this week that the anti-rebel offensive had not only failed to rein in the rebels, but had worsened the already dire plight of civilians there.
"That's really what we can call an exaggeration," Information Minister Lambert Mende said.
"If the situation is now worse, what is that based on? How many people were dying before this operation? How many are dying today? he asked, arguing there could have been many more victims of fighting if the offensive had not taken place.
Congo's army, backed by MONUC, the country's 20,000-strong U.N. force, began an offensive against the Hutu rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) this year in a deal to boost ties with Rwanda, its enemy during a 1998-2003 war.
Rights groups and aid agencies have for months decried the displacement of more than a million villagers, more than 7,000 rapes, and more than 1,000 killings, many of them committed by former rebels hastily integrated into the army this year.
The expert report noted in particular "the possible contradiction" between MONUC's duty to protect civilians and its provision of support for the Congolese army in which certain units were committing abuses against those civilians.
Campaigners renewed calls for an end to the offensive.
"The international community ... should have the honesty to recognise it has made a terrible mistake, for which Congo's civilians are paying with their lives," said a spokeswoman for UK-based Oxfam.
The U.N. Security Council has twice voted unanimously to continue its logistical and operational support for the operations, which has seen MONUC provide rations, transport, and, at times, helicopter firepower to government forces.
The FDLR's members include former Rwandan soldiers and militia leaders responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
The report showed that the rebels have continued to recruit both Congolese and Rwandan Hutus throughout the offensive. They also still earn millions of dollars annually from an illicit traffic in Congo's mineral wealth, including tin ore, which is smuggled through neighbouring countries to end users in Asia.
"To date, no companies, mineral traders or processors have been put on the UN sanctions list, despite abundant evidence that their activities are contributing to keeping armed groups alive," said Gavin Hayman, of resource watchdog Global Witness.