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By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo has suspended a dozen senior military officers and is interrogating suspects in connection with a mass rape incident in the country's turbulent east, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department said on Thursday.
The United Nations said 126 women were raped in Minova in November after Congolese army troops fled to the town as so-called M23 rebels briefly captured the nearby provincial capital, Goma, in eastern Congo.
The U.N. special envoy to Congo, Roger Meece, told Congolese authorities in a March 25 letter they had seven days to take action on the rapes. That came after earlier U.N. demands that Congolese authorities prosecute the suspected rapists went unheeded.
"The investigations have been launched, including interviews of victims and interrogations of suspects," said U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer.
"The commanding officers and deputy commanding officers of two units, as well as the commanding officers of eight other units, have been suspended and put at the disposal of the military prosecutor," he said. "Interrogations are ongoing."
It was not immediately clear how many suspected rapists the Congolese authorities were interrogating.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, has a mandate to protect civilians and support operations by the Congolese army. There are more than 17,000 troops in Congo, a country the size of Western Europe.
The United Nations previously told Congo that it would end support to two battalions linked to the Minova rapes if it did not try the soldiers involved.
"MONUSCO is continuing to monitor progress in the judicial process," Dwyer said.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in December that human rights abuses were reported in and around Minova between November 20 and November 30, including the 126 rapes and the killing of two civilians. Nesirky said at the time that two soldiers were charged with rape, while seven more were charged with looting.
Peacekeepers have been stretched thin by the M23 rebellion in the resource-rich eastern Congo. The U.N. Security Council last month established a special intervention force, which one senior council diplomat has said will be able to "search and destroy" the M23 rebels and other armed groups in the country.
M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honour a 2009 peace deal. That deal ended a previous rebellion and led to the rebels' integration into the army, but they have since deserted.
M23, which a U.N. expert panel said last year was backed by Rwanda, has struggled with infighting recently.
African leaders signed a U.N.-mediated accord in February aimed at ending two decades of conflict in eastern Congo and paving the way for the intervention force approved last month.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Peter Cooney)