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UPDATE 1-Some 170 women raped in attack on Congo villages -UN
Fri, Jun 24 13:40 PM EDT

* 170 women raped during attack on Congo villages - UNHCR

* Teams being sent to region to help victims

* Govt blames former rebels it tried to hire into the army (Adds comment from government spokesman, background)

By Jonny Hogg

KINSHASA, June 24 (Reuters) - The number of reported victims of a mass rape by gunmen in Democratic Republic of Congo has risen by about 70 to as many as 170, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday.

Congo said the mass rape - the largest reported in the turbulent central African country in nearly a year - may have been perpetrated by former rebels that the government had been trying to integrate into the national army.

"According to our local partners, some 170 women were raped in the villages of Nakiele and Abala on the night June 11-12 during an armed attack," UNHCR spokeswoman Celine Schmitt told Reuters, adding the figures came from organisations working near where the attacks took place.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported on Thursday that around 100 women were sexually assaulted in the attack near the town of Fizi in South Kivu province.

An emergency response team is being sent to the area to verify the figures and help victims, Schmitt said.

A spokesman for Congo's government said former rebel leader Colonel Kifaru Niragiye may have been behind the rapes after he and around 100 men deserted from a training camp where they were due to be integrated into the army.

"We have instructed the army to make serious inquiries to know the whereabouts of Colonel Kifaru," Information Minister Lambert Mende told Reuters. "He is seriously wanted, we have dispatched many people to capture him and his group."

Several armed groups continue to operate in eastern Congo since a 1998-2003 war that killed 5 million people, and the government has struggled to counter them despite support from thousands of U.N. peacekeepers.

Congo's reintegration strategy, in which former rebels are drafted into the army, is seen by some as the best way of bringing an end to the rebellions, but critics say it undermines the national forces that are increasingly implicated in atrocities against civilians.

Last year, fighters from the Rwandan Hutu group FDLR were suspected to be behind the rape of more than 300 women in North Kivu over the span of several days.

The U.N. special representative on sexual violence last year called eastern Congo the rape capital of the world, a label the government has strongly rejected. (Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Peter Graff)


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