Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has dispatched a senior aide to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following reports of mass rapes during a four-day rebel siege of an eastern township.
Aid groups were reported saying that nearly 200 women were sexually assaulted in recent weeks by rebels within miles of a UN peacekeepers' base in North Kivu province.
One aid group said many of the women were gang-raped by between two and six armed men.
According to UN figures at least 154 civilians were raped and assaulted by rebels from the Mai Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu FDLR who occupied the town of Luvungi from July 30 to August 3.
Outraged over the incident and due to its seriousness, Ban quickly moved to send Atul Khare, his assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, to Congo.
A statement issued by his office said Ban had instructed Margot Wallstrom, his special representative for sexual violence in conflict, to take charge of the UN's "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".
"This terrible incident confirms my general findings ... of the widespread and systematic nature of rape and other human rights violations"
Margot Wallstrom, UN special representative for sexual violence in conflict
Ban has made protecting civilians and combating sexual violence, especially in Congo, central themes of his stewardship of the world body.
Will Cragin of the International Medical Corps (IMC) had told the Associated Press that aid and UN workers knew the FDLR and Mai-Mai rebels had occupied Luvungi and surrounding villages the day after the attack began on July 30.
Three weeks later, the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo issued no statement about the attacks and said on Monday that it was still investigating.
Cragin told the Associated Press that his organisation was only able to get into the town, which he said is about 16km from a UN military camp, after rebels withdrew on their own on August 4.
"There was no fighting and no deaths, Cragin said, just "lots of pillaging and the systematic raping of women".
Luvungi is a farming centre on the main road between Goma, the eastern
provincial capital, and the major mining town of Walikale.
Four young boys were also raped, according to Kasimbo Charles Kacha, the district medical chief.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said the peacekeeping mission has a military operating base in Kibua, about 30km east of the village, but villagers were prevented from reaching the nearest communication point as FDLR fighters blocked the road.
Civil society leader Charles Masudi Kisa said there were only about 25 peacekeepers and that they did what they could against some 200 to 400 rebels who occupied the town of about 2,200 people and five nearby villages.
"When the peacekeepers approached a village, the rebels would run into the forest, but then the Blue Helmets had to move on to another area, and the rebels would just return," Masudi said.
"During the attack [the rebels] looted [the] population's houses and raped several women in Luvungi and surrounding areas," Stefania Trassari, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said
"International Medical Corps (IMC) reported that FDLR systematically raped the population during its four-day stay in Luvungi and surrounding areas. A total of 179 cases of sexual violence were reported," Trassari said, adding all of the cases
were of rape against women.
The IMC said it was treating the victims.
|MONUC was based in the DRC since 1999 to help the government gain control of the east [AFP]
"Nearly all reported rapes were described as having been perpetrated by two-to-six armed men, often taking place in front of the women's children and husbands," it said in a statement.
The United Nations has withdrawn 1,700 peacekeepers in recent months in response to demands from the DR Congo government to end the mission next year, but still supports operations against several armed groups in the country's east.
Roger Meece, the new head of the UN mission called MONUSCO - which replaced predecessor MONUC - said last week that the rebels were still a huge threat to the population and the UN would keep trying to wipe them out.
Special representative Wallstrom said in April the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the country would make the struggle against endemic rape "a lot more difficult".
Accurate figures for sexual violence are hard to come by as many rapes are unreported but according to the UN, at least 5,400 women reported being raped in neighbouring South Kivu province in the first nine months of 2009 alone.
MONUC had been in the former Belgian colony since 1999 to help the government of the DRC as it struggles to re-establish state control over the vast central African nation.
A war from 1998-2003 and the ensuing humanitarian disaster have killed an estimated 5.4 million people in the country.