Fighting between government forces and armed groups in the conflict-torn North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo could seriously endanger the safety of civilians in the area, Human Rights Watch has said.
In a statement late on Wednesday, the rights group called on the DRC’s security forces and the M23 armed group to “minimize harm to civilians during renewed fighting” and avoid a repetition of the “widespread abuse” during past fighting between government forces and the rebels.
“The M23 armed group was responsible for countless atrocities in the past and the renewed fighting in North Kivu raises grave concerns about the danger to civilians in the area,” Thomas Fessy, senior DRC researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Violence in North Kivu resumed on May 22, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in the latest episode of what the Norwegian Refugee Council has called the world’s most neglected displacement crisis.
The governments of Rwanda and DRC have exchanged accusations about the fighting, with Kigali saying that the Congolese army fired rockets onto its territory, “injuring several civilians and damaging property”.
Kinshasa alleged that the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) was actively fighting alongside M23.
The M23 – or March 23 Movement – originally consisted of soldiers who participated in a mutiny from the DRC national army in April and May 2012. It briefly captured Goma before United Nations-backed government troops in 2013 forced it back into Rwanda and Uganda.
M23 fighters summarily executed dozens of civilians, raped scores of women and girls, and forcibly recruited hundreds of men and boys, becoming “among the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses in [DRC], or in the world”, according to the then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The group resurfaced in November, attacking the DRC’s army after accusing President Felix Tshisekedi of not upholding existing peace agreements, including amnesties for its members.
Tensions escalated in late April as Kenya held a first round of talks between the DRC and a number of armed groups in Nairobi.
“Any new round of talks should address, with assistance from the African Union (AU) and the UN, the demobilization of armed groups and accountability for past serious crimes,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The watchdog has also raised an alarm on the rise in hate speech and stigmatisation of communities linked to DRC’s neighbouring countries, which “has been growing and [is] sometimes linked to government officials”.
In a video circulated on social media but which Al Jazeera has been unable to independently verify, North Kivu’s deputy police commander, Francois-Xavier Aba van Ang encouraged residents to take up machetes as “war against the enemy must become people’s war”.
Human Rights Watch said it was unaware of any disciplinary action taken against van Ang.