At least 5 000 women have been raped this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern province of North Kivu as a new rebellion has sown fresh unrest in the conflict-prone region, a local hospital said on Thursday.
"The number of rapes has risen dramatically: we have registered around 5 000 women raped since the start of the year in North Kivu. It's very dramatic," said Justin Paluku, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, the provincial capital.
Renewed instability has engulfed the region since a group of soldiers mutinied from the army in April and began battling their former colleagues and sowing terror in the east.
The group, the M23, was formed by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the army under a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers claim were never fully implemented.
Its members have been raping women and girls, abducting young men and boys to fight with them, and carrying out summary executions, including the killing of young recruits who tried to escape, according to the United Nations and rights groups.
Other armed groups active in the region have also capitalised on the instability to wage campaigns of their own, including attacks on locals.
The number of rapes "has skyrocketed since we've had this problem of multiple armed groups renewing their activity," said Paluku, whose hospital specialises in caring for victims of sexual violence.
The head of the M23's political wing, Jean-Marie Runiga, denied on Thursday that the group had committed rights abuses.
"So far there have been no abuses committed," Runiga told AFP.
"We do not have any child soldiers in our army," he added.
"Our soldiers are very disciplined, they cannot rape women and we cannot tolerate looting," he said, promising to bring any abuses to justice.
Runiga, who recently returned from peace talks mediated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala, also repeated the M23's call for direct negotiations with President Joseph Kabila's government, threatening fresh unrest if no such talks were held.
"If there are no negotiations as soon as possible, there's a risk there will be clashes in the coming days," he said.