* Africa's Great Lakes region a U.S. priority -Kerry
* U.S. says evidence Rwanda supporting M23 rebels in Congo
* Rwanda and Congo deny experts' claims of rebel support (Adds comment from Congo, Rwanda, U.N. envoy)
By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, July 25 (Reuters) - The United States is"deeply concerned" about allegations that Rwanda is backing M23rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and thatCongolese troops are working with a Rwandan rebel group,Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.
Kerry, leading a U.N. Security Council debate on Africa's Great Lakes region, urged the 11 African leaders who signed aU.N.-mediated deal in February aimed at ending two decades ofconflict in eastern Congo to respect the country's sovereignty.
U.N. experts reported to the council's Congo sanctionscommittee last month that M23 continues to recruit fighters inRwanda with the aid of sympathetic Rwandan military officers,while elements of the Congolese military have cooperated withRwandan Hutu rebel group FDLR.
Rwanda and Congo have denied the allegations.
"The United States is deeply concerned about recent reportsof resumed external support to M23 as well as of collaborationwith the FDLR," Kerry told the Security Council.
"I want to be emphatic here today - all parties mustimmediately end their support for armed rebel groups," he said."All governments must hold human rights violators and abusersaccountable. We must end the era of impunity."
While Kerry did not name Rwanda, U.S. State Departmentspokeswoman Jen Psaki on Tuesday specifically called on Rwandato end support for M23 rebels, saying there was evidence Rwandanmilitary officials were involved.
The U.S. spotlight on Congo and the Great Lakes region whilethe United States is president of the U.N. Security Council inJuly builds on President Barack Obama's first extended visit toAfrica a month ago and renewed focus on the continent.
"The suffering in the Great Lakes ... is a high levelpriority for President Obama and for me and it is one that webelieve must be met by high level leadership," Kerry said. TheObama administration last month appointed Russ Feingold, aformer U.S. senator, as the first U.S. special representative tothe Great Lakes region.
Millions of people have died from violence, disease andhunger since the 1990s as foreign-backed rebel groups havefought for control of eastern Congo's rich deposits of gold,diamonds, copper, cobalt and uranium, destabilizing the GreatLakes region at the heart of Africa.
DAILY KILLING, RAPE, DISPLACEMENT
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said Rwanda was"eager to do its part" for peace in the region. She did notaddress the accusations of Rwandan military support for M23, butsaid Kigali was seriously concerned by claims of collaborationbetween the Congolese army and the FDLR rebel group.
"We are very aware that our destiny is inextricably tied tothat of our neighbors," she said. "In order to secure long-termpeace and prosperity for Rwanda into the future, we need apeaceful and prosperous Democratic Republic of Congo."
"And as long as conditions persist that allow more than 30rebel groups to roam in eastern DRC with impunity ... such atransformation will remain beyond reach," Mushikiwabo said.
Congolese Foreign Affairs Minister Raymond Tshibanda saidthat the Congolese people had suffered for decades at the handsof foreign armed groups and that Congo "could not entertain thenotion of any cooperation with those forces who stand out due totheir killings, their rapes, violence of all nature."
"The Democratic Republic of Congo will never abandon toanyone the least square inch of its territory, nor will it giveup any part of its sovereignty over its wealth," he said.
Kerry welcomed the recent deployment of a new 3,000-memberU.N. Intervention Brigade to fight and disarm rebels in theeast. The brigade is part of a 17,000-member U.N. peacekeepingforce, which has been stretched thin by the M23 rebellion.
M23 is a Tutsi-dominated rebellion of former Congolesesoldiers that has demanded political concessions from PresidentJoseph Kabila's government. The group began taking over parts ofeastern Congo early last year.
Several Western countries, including the United States,Britain and Sweden, froze aid last year over accusations thatRwanda is waging proxy war across the border.
The 15-member U.N. Security Council, which currentlyincludes Rwanda, on Thursday agreed on a statement that "callson all countries of the region neither to tolerate nor provideassistance or support of any kind to armed groups."
U.N. special envoy for the Great Lakes, former IrishPresident Mary Robinson, said there were "credible reports" ofactivities in support of armed groups by countries who signedthe regional peace deal. She did not name the states involved.
"Not a day goes by without a report of killings, rape,sexual assault and displacement of people in eastern DRC,"Robinson told the Security Council.
"The stark reality is that those who suffer the most fromthis endless conflict and its atrocities are, and always havebeen, the civilian population first, particularly women,children and even babies," she said. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen andDoina Chiacu)
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