UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a top official to Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday after a mass rape of women by rebels in the east that U.N. peacekeepers say they only heard about over a week later.
The rebels from the Mai Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu FDLR, who occupied the town of Luvungi in North Kivu province from July 30 to August 3, raped and assaulted at least 154 civilians, according to U.N. figures.
One aid group said many women were gang-raped by between two and six armed men.
The attack has stung the United Nations, which maintains its largest peacekeeping force in Congo. Ban has made protecting civilians and combating sexual violence, especially in Congo, central themes of his stewardship of the world body.
A statement issued by his office said Ban was outraged by the attack, and "given the seriousness of the incident" had decided to immediately dispatch Atul Khare, deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping department, to Congo.
The statement did not spell out the precise mandate of Khare, who is Indian. India has the largest contingent in the peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, supplying more than 3,500 of its nearly 20,000 military personnel.
The statement also said Ban had instructed Margot Wallstrom, his special representative for sexual violence in conflict, to take charge of the U.N. "response and follow-up."
In a separate statement, Wallstrom said "this terrible incident confirms my general findings during my recent visit to (Congo) of the widespread and systematic nature of rape and other human rights violations."
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said MONUSCO had only heard of the rapes in Luvungi on August 12 from an international medical aid group, and had later sent a protection team and a fact-finding mission to the area.
He said MONUSCO maintained a small base in Kibua, about 30 km (20 miles) from the scene of the attack.
"Thirty kilometres may not sound very far, but in densely wooded areas, this is quite a distance," he told reporters, adding that the rebels had prevented villagers from reaching the nearest road.
"It's a vast area that is covered (by MONUSCO), and it's unfortunately common for incidents to go unreported for the simple stark fact that people fear reprisals," he said.
The United Nations has withdrawn 1,700 peacekeepers in recent months in response to calls from Congo's government to end the mission next year, but still supports operations against several armed groups in the east.
Wallstrom said in April the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers would make the struggle against endemic rape "a lot more difficult."
Accurate sexual violence figures are hard to come by as many rapes are unreported, but the United Nations has said at least 5,400 women reported being raped in neighbouring South Kivu in the first nine months of 2009 alone.
MONUSCO and its predecessor MONUC have been in the former Belgian colony since 1999 to help the Congo government as it struggles to re-establish state control over the vast central African nation.
A 1998-2003 war and an ensuing humanitarian disaster have killed an estimated 5.4 million people in the country.
Editing by Jerry Norton