The M23 rebel group has increasingly acted as a conventional army during escalating military action in the country's volatile east and could threaten the UN peacekeeping force charged with protecting civilians, the UN special envoy for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has warned.
Envoy Bintou Keita on Wednesday urged the UN Security Council to fully back regional efforts to defuse tensions between DRC and Rwanda over M23 rebels and other armed groups that have raised fears of war between the neighbouring countries.
She also urged DRC and Rwanda to seize the opportunity to resolve their differences at an upcoming summit hosted by Angola's President Joao Lourenco in the capital, Luanda.
Keita told the Security Council that "during the most recent hostilities, the M23 has conducted itself increasingly as a conventional army rather than an armed group."
"The M23 possesses firepower and equipment, which is increasingly sophisticated, specifically in terms of long-range fire capacities, mortars and machine guns as well as precision fire against aircraft," she said.
"The threat that this poses both for civilians" and UN peacekeepers "who have a mandate to protect them is evident."
"Should the M23 continue its well-coordinated attacks against FARDC and MONUSCO with increasing conventional capabilities, the Mission may find itself confronted by a threat that goes beyond its current capabilities," she noted.
She also cited threats from other armed groups.
Regional troop deployment
As government forces and the UN peacekeeping body shifted troops to focus on the M23, Keita said other armed groups "sought to take advantage of the resulting security vacuum," increasing attacks in North Kivu and Ituri provinces that killed more than 150 civilians between May 28 and June 17.
Keita later told reporters that deployment of the regional force authorised at the Kenya meeting should complement UN peacekeepers: "The most important element and feature for us is coordination, coordination, coordination."
Fortunately, she said, the regional force will be based in Goma, eastern DRC's largest city, where UN peacekeepers have a coordination center with the DRC army. She also stressed the importance of the regional force’s commitment to human rights.
She said initial deployments of the new force were expected before the end of July, with the bulk of the troops on the ground scheduled for August.
US deputy ambassador Richard Mills told the council the United States insists that the regional force's deployment be closely coordinated with UN peacekeepers and conducted under international law and existing Security Council sanctions resolutions.
Keita said she was encouraged by the commitment of DRC's government to pursue consultations with armed groups and encourage them to lay down their arms and join a national disarmament programme, adding that several groups expressed their willingness.