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The United Nations Security Council is grappling with a troubling question in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How could UN peacekeepers not know about mass rapes that were taking place over a period that lasted four days this summer? The U.N. says the troops didn't find out about the atrocities until more than a week after they ended.� NPRs Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, sounded exasperated after a U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday.�She says she raised pointed questions about the rapes in eastern Congo.

Ambassador SUSAN RICE (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations): It was a disturbing briefing, both for what we learned and what we don't know still.

KELEMEN: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has sent top officials to investigate and Ambassador Rice says she and her colleagues have started brainstorming about how to step up communications between remote Congolese villages and U.N. peacekeepers.

Amb. RICE: In many instances, those procedures have worked. In this instance, clearly they did not, and we need to know why and what mechanisms might be put in place to ensure that this type of horror is not repeated again and again.

KELEMEN: The International Medical Corps, which alerted the U.N. of the rapes, first learned of security problems in the area through a U.N. email alert at the end of July, according to the humanitarian groups vice president, Rebecca Milner.

Ms. REBECCA MILNER (President, International Medical Corps): There was a notice that there were armed perpetrators in the area that was distributed through the humanitarian listserv.

KELEMEN: Then on August 3rd a local leader came to her organization to seek help. And when medical teams managed to get to the villages in North Kivu Province on August 6th, they heard stories about how several hundred rebels gang-raped women over the course of four days.

Ms. MILNER: And often the rapes took place in front of the womens children and husbands, in front of their families.

KELEMEN: One hundred fifty-six women have since received treatment, Milner says, and the number of women coming forward is rising.�

Ms. MILNER: The scale of this, I think, was quite startling. And in our recent records we havent dealt with this number before.

KELEMEN: U.N. officials are still looking into who knew what and when. The top U.N. official in Congo, Roger Meece, says there was a patrol that went through some villages in the area on August 2nd, but none of the villagers alerted the U.N. Peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, about the rapes.�In a video conference with reporters in New York, Meece speculated as to why this was the case.

Mr. ROGER MEECE (United Nations Official): Is it conceivable that the local villagers were afraid of reprisals if they reported anything to MONUSCO? Possible. Is it conceivable that they were ashamed of what has happened in some form? Thats possible.

KELEMEN: Privately, U.N. officials also worry about this: whether villagers dont trust U.N. peacekeepers. There are only 80 peacekeepers at the outpost that covers the area where the attack occurred and officials describe it as a vast region with impassable roads and very limited cell phone coverage. Sexual violence is a widespread problem there and will likely remain so as long as rebel movements are fighting, according to the U.N.s outgoing humanitarian chief, John Holmes.

Mr. JOHN HOLMES (United Nations Official): The reality is that until these armed groups are dealt with once and for all, this risk is still going to be there, and however well MONUSCO performs, they are not going to be able to stop every case of rape. They can't be behind every bush.

KELEMEN: The U.S. wants the U.N. to do a better job of at least knowing where civilians are at risk.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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