- Associated Press - Sunday, October 3, 2010

GENEVA | On Nov. 14, 1996, armed men surrounded the Mugunga refugee camp in eastern Zaire and began shooting indiscriminately at its inhabitants as they huddled for safety or tried to flee.

Hundreds of men, women and children died over a three-day period, according to eyewitnesses and forensic evidence later gathered from mass graves.

A report published Friday by the U.N. human rights office says the killings at Mugunga may have been one of many instances that — taken together — could constitute genocide by the Rwandan army, which at the time was hunting down Hutu rebels in neighboring Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The suggestion sparked an angry response from Rwanda, whose president, Paul Kagame, has basked in international approval for ending the 1994 genocide there, during which more than half a million people, mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were killed.

Calling the report “flawed and dangerous from start to finish,” Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo called it an attempt to rewrite history.

In a written riposte to the United Nations, the Rwandan government said its troops “never fired any weapons into the camp” at Mugunga and civilians only were killed when armed rebels inside the camp tried to stop people from fleeing. Later, civilians who were held as human shields by the rebels died in the crossfire, it said.

The Red Cross and other organizations cited in the report refused to comment on it, saying the subject was too sensitive in light of ongoing human rights abuses in the region. The U.N. says more than 500 rapes have been committed in eastern Congo since late July.

Previous reports have described massacres and indiscriminate killings in Congo. But the latest report’s depth will make it harder to ignore, experts say.

The report cost $3 million to produce and details more than 600 incidents from 1993 to 2003, when a five-year civil war that killed millions through disease and neglect ended. It concludes that tens of thousands of people — mostly women and children — were slain in attacks by the many armed groups roving eastern Congo.

The Congolese government welcomed the report’s suggestion that a tribunal be set up to prosecute those responsible.

Congo’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Ileka Atoki, described the report as “heartbreaking” and “horrific.”

“The victims deserve justice,” said Mr. Atoki.

“The Congolese government is firmly committed to that endeavor,” he said, proposing an international meeting in Kinshasa, Congo, to discuss the report.

Amnesty International said the report was “very thorough.”

“What we want now is for action to be taken,” said Veronique Aubert, the group’s deputy Africa director. “The cycle of violence in the region will only stop if those responsible for these horrific crimes are held to account.”

The report has reopened old wounds in Africa’s Great Lakes region, where massive mineral wealth has fueled conflict even as many people in the region live in dire poverty.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials mounted a sophisticated public relations campaign before the report’s release. They distributed detailed attacks on the findings and warned that their governments might pull out of U.N. peacekeeping operations.

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