By Michelle Nichols
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The United States and Britain pushed Democratic Republic of Congo officials to prosecute soldiers accused of raping some 130 women and girls in Congo's volatile east, U.N. Security Council envoys said during a visit to the country on Sunday.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, and British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant raised the issue during a meeting between the 15 Security Council envoys and Congo's defence, interior and justice ministers in Kinshasa on Saturday.
"Nobody knows better than the Congolese the price of impunity, because the Congolese people have for years been the victims of armed groups who have been killing and raping their way through eastern Congo," Power told Reuters on Sunday.
"On the Minova case, the government must show it practices what it preaches by punishing those officers and soldiers responsible. We made clear our concerns about the lack of progress thus far," she said.
The United Nations threatened in February to withdraw support for two Congolese battalions after soldiers raped at least 97 women and 33 girls, some as young as 6, in the eastern town of Minova after the troops fled from advancing M23 rebels in late November.
The peacekeeping mission decided to keep working with the 41st and 391st battalions after 12 senior officers, including the commanders and deputy commanders, were suspended and about a dozen soldiers were charged over the rapes in Minova, according to a U.N. human rights report.
The 391st battalion was trained by the United States in 2010 as "a model for future reforms within the Congolese armed forces," according to the U.S. Africa Command website.
Lyall Grant said the Congolese ministers told them there was no question of impunity and investigations were still continuing. The ministers said there were some difficulties obtaining victim statements from a humanitarian group due to patient confidentiality, which had delayed inquiries, he added.
"We made clear we were expecting some follow-up prosecutions because the concern that we had was although some lower level soldiers had been arrested and some others had been suspended, we hadn't seen any evidence of prosecutions," Lyall Grant said.
After provincial capital Goma and the town of Sake briefly fell to M23 rebels, a U.N. report said, thousands of Congolese troops fled in a disorganized manner toward Minova, where they "committed mass rape and other acts of sexual violence, as well as arbitrary execution, mistreatment and systematic looting."
Congolese troops and U.N. peacekeepers have been battling an M23 rebellion in the resource-rich eastern part of the country for the past 18-months.