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Force Intervention Brigade “forced” M23 back to peace talks

UN FIB After an aggressive new UN brigade in the eastern DRC scored a military victory over M23 rebels and forced them back to peace talks, UN peacekeepers are now turning their focus to two other equally dangerous armed groups.

During a visit by UN Security Council ambassadors to the eastern capital of Goma on Sunday, UN officials said while the M23 group had garnered global headlines, just as great a threat was posed by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Islamist group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

“If we do not manage by one way or another to neutralise, disarm and/or demobilise those groups we are not very hopeful (for sustainable peace),” said Ray Torres, head of MONUSCO in North Kivu province.

He said many of the other 39 armed groups in eastern Congo had justified their existence as rivals to M23 and FDLR.

Millions of people have died from violence, disease and hunger since the 1990s as rebel groups fight for control of eastern Congo's rich deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and uranium.

The Security Council earlier this year created the Forward Intervention Brigade (FIB) within MONUSCO, an assertive new step for UN peacekeeping, which for years has been criticised in the region for inaction and failing to protect civilians.

Malawian troops started deploying last week to join South African and Tanzanian soldiers in the 3 000-strong FIB. MONUSCO has about 20 000 troops in total spread across the vast Central African state.

The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) has to date hosted one media briefing on its involvement with the FIB. That was in mid-August and subsequently two statements have been issued, this despite an undertaking to issue statements or hold briefings weekly to keep South Africans abreast of “their” soldiers’ involvement in the first ever UN peacekeeping force to be given an offensive mandate.

Standing on a hilltop - known as Kibati Three Towers - just north of Goma, Torres told the 15 Security Council envoys that was where Congolese troops, aided by the FIB for the first time had beaten back M23 rebels early in August.

“The operations that took place here substantially changed the situation and the set-up in North Kivu,” he said. Not only had M23 returned to peace talks with the Congolese government, but defections had increased and the operation had sparked a number of peace initiatives with other armed groups.

Despite the initial success of the FIB, however, Security Council envoys came up against what they called “excessive expectations” for the force during talks with Congolese officials in Kinshasa and with civil society leaders in Goma at the weekend.

“I’m sure they're expecting too much (of the brigade),” said British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant. “It's been a good start. It was an experiment the Security Council decided to take because of our concerns to protect civilians in a place and at a time when they hadn't been protected for a very long period.”

Questions over support

One in six people in North Kivu have been displaced. The council envoys visited Mugunga 3 camp, home to more than 16,000 internally displaced people. Camp resident Amnazo-Sharv said she believed it was up to the UN peacekeepers to clear away all armed groups in eastern Congo.

“Once MONUSCO has finished that task we will be assured peace has been restored,” Amnazo-Sharv, speaking through a translator, said.

Azerbaijan Ambassador Agshin Mehdiyev, president of the Council for October, told a news conference in Goma that while the international community would continue to support Congo “at the end of the day you are Congolese, you're responsible for the protection of your territory and your people”.

Eastern Congo has long been one of Africa's bloodiest battlegrounds. The roots of this conflict are in the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, where Hutu soldiers and militia killed 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Many of those responsible for the genocide fled into eastern Congo along with two million Hutu refugees. Many “genocidaires” now fight for the FDLR. Rwanda has accused Congolese troops of collaborating with the FDLR, a charge Kinshasa has denied.

UN experts have repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the 18 month long rebellion by M23, a claim the Rwandan government has fiercely rejected.

“We need to study more the access, not only of M23 and FDLR, but the access of all groups to weapons and ammunition,” MONUSCO force commander General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz told the Security Council ambassadors.

"We need to know more on the financial support for them, how they get these weapons, ammunition and more resources, including uniforms.”

Thick forests, rugged terrain and the scarcity of roads on Congo's eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda have complicated efforts by Congolese troops and UN peacekeepers to control the resource-rich area.

Santos Cruz said that while the UN force needed more helicopters, the expected arrival next month of an unarmed surveillance drone would be a great boost to capabilities.

It will be the first time the UN has used such equipment and, if trial surveillance in eastern Congo is successful, officials and diplomats hope drones could also be used by missions in Ivory Coast and South Sudan.

Torres expressed particular concern about the ADF, which he said was establishing and strengthening its position.

The Ugandan government said the ADF is allied to elements of Somalia's al Shabaab movement, an al Qaeda-linked group, but Torres said not enough is known about them and he has established a MONUSCO task force to learn more about it.