Reuters International

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo have arrested a provincial lawmaker accused of leading a militia that raped about 30 very young girls and murdered a German engineer and local rights activist, the justice minister said on Thursday.

Repeated rapes of girls as young as 18 months near the village of Kavumu in eastern Congo's South Kivu province since 2013 have led to an international outcry and criticism of the Congolese government for its alleged inaction.

Alexis Thambwe told reporters in the capital Kinshasa that Frederic Batumike, a deputy from South Kivu province, and 74 members of his militia were arrested this week.

"The militia that works for him recruited a fetishist who advises the militiamen to rape very young girls to be assured of having a supernatural protection," Thambwe said.

He added that Batumike is accused of being behind the murders of Walter Muller, a German engineer working in Congo, and a Congolese human rights named Evariste Kasali.

Batumike could not be immediately reached for comment.

The director of the U.N. human rights office in Congo, Jose Maria Aranaz, praised the arrests, saying: "We welcome the authorities' action to put an end to these horrible practices and bring those responsible to justice."

Dozens of armed groups operate in lawless eastern Congo, where a 1998-2003 conflict killed millions of people, mostly from hunger and disease. Both state and rebel forces have been accused by rights groups of using rape as a weapon of war.

Rights groups say the government has made some progress in clamping down on sexual violence but that it remains extremely prevalent.

(Reporting By Aaron Ross, Editing by Tim Cocks and Angus MacSwan)

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