This file photograph from July 3, 2011, shows two rape survivors in Nakiele, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

United Nations - The Democratic Republic of Congo has notified the U.N. that it has made several arrests and suspended the commanders of two battalions and other officers allegedly involved in mass rapes in the country's volatile east late last year, the United Nations said Friday.

The U.N. peacekeeping department warned the Congolese army last month that U.N. peacekeepers would refuse to conduct operations with the two battalions unless they quickly prosecuted soldiers accused of mass rapes. Congo's armed forces were blamed for a series of attacks as they fled in retreat from Goma in late November as M23 rebels advanced into the key provincial capital in the east.

The U.N. said it has documented at least 126 rapes during that period in the Minova area south of Goma.

The mineral-rich east has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias before a Tutsi-led rebel army took power in Rwanda. More than 1 million Rwandan Hutus fled across the border into Congo, and Rwanda has invaded Congo to take action against Hutu militias there.

Congo, a nation of 70 million people that is equal in size to Western Europe, has been plagued by decades of war. Its vast forests are rife with militias that have systematically used rape to destroy communities.

U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Friday the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo views the suspension of the commanding officers as “an important signal” of the government's commitment to hold the perpetrators accountable and will continue to monitor the judicial process.

In its notification to the U.N. peacekeeping department, the government of Congo said it has launched investigations and recorded about 400 testimonies from victims, witnesses and suspects and has made several arrests “as an interim internal disciplinary measure,” del Buey said.

The government also informed the U.N. “that a number of officers allegedly involved in these acts have been suspended and put at the disposal of the military prosecutor for the purposes of the investigation,” he said.

“Among these officers are the commanding officers and deputy commanding officers of the two main battalions suspected of committing these acts, as well as officers of eight other units,” del Buey said.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in June 2011 showed that Congo is the worst place on earth to be a woman.

It said more than 400 000 women had been raped in Congo during a 12-month period between 2006 and 2007, with the highest frequency in North Kivu whose capital is Goma. The exploitation of Congo's mineral resources continues to exacerbate conflict and instability on the ground.

The United Nations has more than 17 700 U.N. peacekeepers and over 1 400 international police in Congo, the vast majority in the east, but they were unable to protect civilians from the M23 rebels whose movement began in April 2012 when hundreds of troops defected from the Congolese armed forces.

In late March, the U.N. Security Council authorized a new “intervention brigade” for Congo with an unprecedented mandate to take military action against rebel groups to help bring peace to the conflict-wracked eastern region. - Sapa-AP