KINSHASA - Democratic Republic of Congo soldiers have "deliberately killed" more than 500 civilians since March during an offensive targeting rebels in the country's east, Human Rights Watch said Monday.
"Human Rights Watch conducted 21 fact-finding missions in North and South Kivu from January to October 2009, and found that Congolese army soldiers had deliberately killed at least 505 civilians from the start of operation Kimia II in March through September," it said.
North and South Kivu are provinces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, while Kimia II is the name of the offensive targeting rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
"Another 198 civilians were deliberately killed by Congolese army soldiers and their Rwandan army allies during an earlier five-week joint operation, known as Umoja Wetu, in late January and February," the rights group said.
Earlier on Monday, a top UN official announced that the United Nations had withdrawn its support for Congolese army units operating in the east, accusing its soldiers of killing 62 civilians.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at least 81 civilians were killed in early August when Congolese army soldiers attacked five hamlets within a few kilometers of one another around 15 kilometers from a UN base.
"The attacking Congolese soldiers made no distinction between combatants and civilians, shooting many at close range or chopping their victims to death with machetes," the rights group said.
"In one of the hamlets, Katanda, Congolese army soldiers decapitated four young men, cut off their arms, and then threw their heads and limbs 20 meters away from their bodies.
"The soldiers then raped 16 women and girls, including a 12-year-old girl, later killing four of them."
Human Rights Watch also reported brutal revenge attacks by the FDLR militia, which it said had deliberately targeted Congolese civilians in response to government military operations.
Between January and September the militia group deliberately killed at least 630 civilians, the rights body said.
Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "War crimes committed by the FDLR militia are absolutely no justification for Congolese government soldiers to commit atrocities."