UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- U.N. officials have opened investigations into whether war crimes have been committed in eastern Congo, saying they have alarming evidence of targeted killings and possibly massacres of civilians.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the possibility of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a report Wednesday to the Security Council that recommends U.N. peacekeepers who make up the world's largest such contingent should remain in Congo through 2009.
"The forced displacement of populations and evidence of the targeted killings of civilians are alarming. In the current climate, the possibility of massacres of civilians cannot be ruled out," he said in the report.
Alan Doss, the U.N.'s top envoy to Congo, told the council that the peacekeeping force, known as MONUC, had recently opened "several investigations into alleged massacres and extra-judicial executions."
"All belligerents have committed serious atrocities against civilians," Doss said. "Women and children have suffered most from the recurrent fighting. Sexual violence is rampant and many armed groups continue to recruit children into their ranks."
Doss said a team has begun investigating the possible killings of at least 26 people - a figure that could grow "substantially higher" - around Kiwanja, about 45 miles north of Goma, the provincial capital. The inquiry followed reports that rebels killed dozens of people two weeks ago while fending off an attack from the army, pro-government Mai Mai militias and Rwandan Hutu rebels.
"We don't want to rush to judgment, it's important. But, we do know that those killings occurred in areas that the CNDP had taken over," said Doss, referring to the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, headed by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.
In April, the International Criminal Court published an arrest warrant for CNDP's chief of staff, Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for the alleged forced conscription of child soldiers in the Ituri region of eastern Congo about five years ago.
"The CNDP is one of the groups against which there are credible reports of serious crimes committed in the two Kivu provinces - including sexual crimes of unspeakable cruelty," the court had said.
Ban reported that Congolese and foreign armed groups have committed serious human rights abuses with impunity, including mass killings, rapes, torture, abductions, forced recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor and sexual slavery.
Those include, according to his report, "a resumption of atrocities" against Congolese civilians by the notorious Ugandan rebel group Lord's Resistance Army. It abducted some 177 Congolese children and killed an estimated 76 adults between mid-September and early October, Ban reported.
The International Criminal Court has also issued arrest warrants for leaders of that rebel group, which has been fighting a 20-year insurgency in northern Uganda.
About 1.35 million people are displaced by the Congolese fighting between rebel and government forces in the areas of North and South Kivu and Ituri, Ban said.
Ban's fears, including the risk that the conflict could spill over into the broader region, reflect growing international concerns.
In a report Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch charged that Congo's government, on orders from the president, had killed an estimated 500 opposition members, dumping the bodies in the Congo River and in mass graves. President Joseph Kabila's spokesman called the report "nonsense."
Last week, the Security Council unanimously approved sending almost 3,100 additional peacekeeping troops, which would bring the total in Congo, including police, to more than 20,000.
British deputy ambassador Karen Pierce stressed the importance of getting the reinforcements on the ground as soon as possible. European nations, the most likely to provide troops for such a force, have so far been reluctant to commit troops.
But Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht said at U.N. headquarters that his and several other European nations are considering pooling soldiers to supplement the U.N. force - a "bridging" force in the coming months that has Ban's support.
De Gucht has called for the European Union to send at least 2,000 soldiers, but support for that has been lukewarm.
In a letter made public Wednesday, Rwanda's foreign ministry urged the regional nations and international community to support an agreement between Rwanda and Congo earlier this month.
The two nations agreed to take military action to root out Hutu militias operating in eastern Congo and to promote a political solution to the differences between the Congolese government and Nkunda's forces.
Nkunda says he is protecting minority Tutsis from Hutus who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Critics say he is more interested in power and accuse his forces of committing human rights abuses.
Rwanda's Foreign Ministry said "the root cause of the conflict" in eastern Congo is the Rwandan Hutu FDLR militia, which incorporates some combatants who participated in the Rwandan genocide.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the U.N. envoy trying to help end the recent fighting, said this week that the issue of what to do about the FDLR must be addressed.
A third element in the violence in the Congo this year has been the Mai Mai militias that operate between the margins.
Since the fighting intensified in August with an offensive by Nkunda to seize large sections of the country, more than 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, and cholera has become a major problem in camps for the displaced.
The rebel forces also have set up their own local administrations and are collecting taxes on the region's rich minerals and other goods moving through their territory.