DR Congo officers in rape and war crimes trial

Soldiers on trial in Goma, DR Congo - 20 November 2013 The alleged war crimes occurred as soldiers retreated after a rebel offensive

Thirty-nine government soldiers accused of war crimes have gone on trial in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most of the charges relate to the mass rape and other acts of sexual violence against more than 130 women and girls in November 2012 by a retreating army.

Correspondents say the military trial comes after months of international pressure after some officers were suspended but no soldiers tried.

The UN then threatened to stop funding army units suspected of abuses.

Armed groups in eastern DR Congo often use rape as a weapon of war.

'Surprise'

The BBC's Maud Jullien in Goma says the charges, including murder, rape and looting, were read out to the soldiers, who are mostly low-ranking, at the military court in the eastern city.

The trial will focus on events a year ago when M23 rebels took control of Goma and thousands of soldiers retreated to the town of Minova.

According to a UN report, at least 102 women and 33 girls were victims of rape or other acts of sexual violence by government troops in the market town to the south of Goma.

The lead lawyer representing the victims, Sylvestre Bisimwa, says the figures given in the UN report are very low.

He told the BBC that so far 1,014 people - male and female - have been identified as victims of war crimes in Minova.

The trial was adjourned for two weeks following a request by the various lawyers representing the victims that they be able to go to Minova to find more witnesses.

Mr Bisimwa told the BBC he was surprised to see so few high-ranking officers amongst the accused.

He added that many victims said their alleged rapists were not among the 39 accused.

Our correspondent says that 11 soldiers were initially arrested last December in connection with crimes committed in Minova and later 12 senior officers in charge of the units implicated in the rapes in Minova were suspended - but none were brought to trial.

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