KINSHASA, Congo - A new fleet of drones will make their maiden voyage this week in Congo's troubled east, where one rebel group was recently disarmed, but many more continue to occupy the area's thick jungles.
United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the five drones will be "an essential tool" in the peacekeeping mission's military plan. Now that the M23 rebel group has been defeated, he said the U.N. needs to turn its attention to other militias operating in eastern Congo. Among them are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, started by extremist Hutus from Rwanda who took part in that country's 1994 genocide, then fled across the border into Congo.
"We need to take care of the FDLR, the ADF, the Mai Mai," said Ladsous in French after arriving in Congo's capital on Sunday. He is travelling to Goma for the launch of the drone program on Tuesday. "We are going to use these machines and they will have an important deterring effect."
The U.N. Security Council gave approval in January for the trial use of unarmed drones for intelligence gathering in eastern Congo. United Nations spokesman Martin Nesirky said last week that the world body's peacekeeping division had chosen a model produced by Italian firm Selex ES, known as the Falco. It's capable of carrying several types of high-resolution sensors, and will be used to monitor the movement of armed groups.
After years of criticism for alleged inaction, the U.N. has recently taken a more aggressive role in Congo's conflict, and a special U.N. intervention brigade created in March was instrumental in helping defeat the M23 rebel group last month. The rebels, widely believed to be financed and backed by neighboring Rwanda, fled across the border in the face of a joint Congolese and United Nations campaign, including air raids with combat helicopters.
Congo, with a population of 66 million, has been engulfed in conflict for nearly two decades and armed groups have thrived in its mineral-rich forests, despite the presence of nearly 20,000 blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers. That's in part because until the creation of the special intervention brigade, U.N. troops were only allowed to attack if civilians were in imminent danger, a technicality that made the U.N. the target of ridicule last November, when M23 rebels were photographed marching into the eastern Congolese capital of Goma past a U.N. armored personnel carrier.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer in New York and Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.