MONUSCO forces in DRC
Lieutenant General Chandar Prakash, Force Commander for the United Nations Stabilisation Mission to the Congo (MONUSCO), is pictured visiting the Congolese border town of Bunagana in May 2012PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages

A new scandal is rocking the United Nations (UN) after it was alleged that five civilians were killed in a UN-led aerial attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)'s troubled eastern earlier in October.

The UN's peacekeeping mission, the UN's Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), which has been active since 1999, was accused of killing civilians on 5 October after it conducted an helicopter attack on the Pinga region in the east of North Kivu region.

The operation was launched by MONUSCO without consultation with the Congolese army and concentrated on Musanga and Minova villages, where the mission said "fighting between armed groups had caused civilian population movements and the massive destruction of houses", according to a statement on 14 October.

MONUSCO said it led the attack in conformity with its mandate, which authorises it to resort to force to protect civilians against Congolese and foreign rebels in the east of the country that NGOs have been accused of murders, mass rape, enrolling child soldiers or looting.

Unverified reports of deaths

In the Pinga region, MONUSCO said it was targeting Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – whose members took part in the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda – and the Nduma Defence for Congo (NDC), which is accused of having participated in the mass rape of 387 civilians in the summer of 2010 before its split.

Two days after the attack – the first one in months – the governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku announced five civilians had been killed, while Lambert Mende, a spokesman for the government, confirmed "five deaths".

MONUSCO forces in DRC
The 22,000-strong UN force, known as MONUSCO, and Congo troops have struggled over the past decade to stem a conflict involving dozens of armed groups and complicated by national and ethnic rivalriesREUTERS/Kenny Katombe

MONUSCO on Twitter, meanwhile, posted "Four dead (are) at the heart of a controversy" before rapidly deleting the tweet.

The UN's New York headquarters then declared an "evaluation has concluded that one fighter was killed" and "MONUSCO does not believe in the veracity of the reports that five civilians were killed". In its statement, the organisation added four identified injured were wounded by bullets during "previous fighting against armed groups".

It added: "No one who stated they had lost parents in the operation [...] actually saw the bodies," meaning the UN only considers those potential victims to be missing.

Theory of a UN blunder

Rumbo Buna Theophile, who heads a local organisation, travelled to Pinga where he met residents of Musanga village, who told him eight men had been hit by shrapnel during the UN operation, with four of them dead.

He said MONUSCO, which has 22,000 peacekeepers in DRC, had provided no explanation for the attack "in this place where there were no [...] combatants". Theophile added: "MONUSCO fired 420 ammunition and 76 rockets. And what have we succeeded? Nothing. We have killed one person –a rebel – and the [Congolese] authorities are angry at us."

While he acknowledged he did not see any bodies, Theophile insisted the UN version does not make sense. He said: "The army, the police and residents have confirmed that civilians were killed [...] We have intervened [following this affair] because civilians were killed."

While three separate investigations are under way, there are others who share the hypothesis that MONUSCO may have mistakenly fired on refugees who had come out on reconnaissance to their village, thinking they were rebels.

MONUSCO forces in DRC
A soldier from the Indian Battalion of the MONUSCO stands guard in September 2010 in the village of Luvungi in northeastern DRCMARC HOFFER/AFP/Getty Images