|Hundreds of women and children were raped by militia forces in late July and early August in the eastern DRC [EPA]
The UN Security Council has slammed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for mass rapes in the country, calling for toughter action to bring those responsible to justice.
Hundreds of women and children were raped by militia groups in the east of the central African country in late July and early August, drawing widespread international condemnation. UN peacekeepers in the country were also criticised for their slow response to the attacks.
A Security Council statement on Friday said that the DRC should be doing more to catch the perpetrators and help the victims, while calling for the UN peacekeeping force, the most expensive in the world, to do more to protect the remote communities that suffer at the hands of militias.
There are some 20,000 peacekeepers in the DRC, seeking to prevent lingering violence in the east of the country.
The DRC should "ensure a swift and fair prosecution of the perpetrators of these terrible crimes and to inform the Security Council oon the measures undertaken", the statement said.
It called on the government to "condemn these atrocities and provide effective assistance to the victims of sexual abuse".
The Mai-Mai militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) have been accused of the attacks, which occurred when armed groups took over whole villages and raped women in front of their families.
UN peacekeeping officials have admitted that the force "failed" to protect the local population from the rapists by responding too slowly to reports of the attacks. Patrols in vulnerable areas have since been increased.
The Security Council said that the peacekeeping force must "improve relations with communities, including through information-gathering mechanisms and communications tools".
Margaret Wallstron, the UN special representative on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, has called the DRC the "rape capital of the world" and said that sexual violence is used as a weapon in the bloody battle to control the country's rich mineral and gold resources.
The DRC reacted angrily to the statement, saying that the rapists had no connection to the government. "We are the victims," said Lambert Mende, the government's spokesman. "Do you think that the rapists are tied to the DRC government? We know who the rapists are, even if they are in the DRC, they have no connection with the government"
Mende insisted that government forces had done everything they could to tackle the rapists. DRC troops "were put into offensive contact with these groups of rapists, we beseiged them", he told the AFP news agency. "Why is it the government that is criticised? We should be encouraged to continue the clampdown we are engaged in against these people," he added.
Reporting from New York, Al Jazeera's Cath Turner said that relations between the UN and the DRC had been strained in recent months. "The DRC has taken a defensive line on the UN Security Council statement. This is syptomatic of a rather uneasy relationship between the DRC and the UN."
The Congolese govenrment has said that the UN peacekeeping force is ineffective and should be withdrawn from the country. But many question whether the Congolese government, whose own troops are accused of using rape as a weapon of war, is ready to assume responsibility for security.