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TORONTO (Reuters) - The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are failing to protect aboriginal women in northern regions from violence, according to a report from an international human rights group that also alleged abusive behavior by police officers themselves.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged the Canadian government to probe dozens of murders and disappearances of females along a northern strip of highway in the Pacific province of British Columbia known as the "Highway of Tears".
"The threat of domestic and random violence on one side, and mistreatment by RCMP officers on the other, leaves indigenous women in a constant state of insecurity," said Meghan Rhoad, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Where can they turn for help when the police are known to be unresponsive and, in some cases, abusive?"
Human Rights Watch said it sent researchers to the area between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, last July and August and interviewed 50 indigenous women and girls, while also talking with affected families and native leaders.
The group said it was told of excessive use of force, strip searches of women by male officers, as well as physical and sexual abuse.
"One woman said that in July, four police officers took her to a remote location, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone," the report stated.
Police in British Columbia noted that no one linked to the report had officially filed a complaint.
"It is impossible to deal with such public and serious complaints when we have no method to determine who the victims or the accused are," the force said in a statement.
Last year an official inquiry found that police in British Columbia made critical errors in pursuing serial killer Robert Pickton, partly because of "systemic bias" against his victims, who were sex trade workers, several of whom were aboriginal women. Pickton was convicted of six murders, but prosecutors believe he killed many more women.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said an official commission for complaints against the RCMP, the national police force, would look into the Human Rights Watch report.
"The responsibility of every member in this House is not simply to throw around allegations," he told Parliament, urging those with information to talk to the relevant authorities.
Aboriginal leaders called on the government to implement the recommendations in the report.
"The stories shared in this report are heart-wrenching and absolutely appalling, particularly given this is only a small sample of the conditions and experiences of indigenous women, girls and families across our territories," said Shawn Atleo, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national umbrella group for aboriginal organizations.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway