UNITED NATIONS— The head of the U.N. mission in the Congo said Wednesday that with the defeat of M23 rebels, U.N. peacekeepers are targeting other armed groups that have terrorized the eastern Congo for years.
After briefing the Security Council, the U.N.’s Martin Kobler told reporters the mission is focusing on the Rwandan Hutu group, the FDLR.
He said between 1,500 and 1,800 fighters are in the FDLR, the majority of whom are too young to have participated in the Rwandan genocide.
“Seventy percent are young, below the age of 30. They were not involved in the 1994 genocide, so it is easier for them also to surrender to us, and we had quite a number of surrenderees. A whole platoon every month is surrendering without fighting," said Kobler.
He said the U.N. mission, known by its French acronym MONUSCO, began operations against the FDLR November 27 and has made important progress liberating several areas. This week, it cleared a main road that connects the town of Pinga and the provincial capital, Goma.
“This road was closed two years. And from yesterday on, people can bring their vegetables to Goma market; they can visit their families outside the area - after two years’ paralysis and having been terrorized by armed groups in this area," he said.
He attributed much of the success to the troops on the ground, but welcomed the addition last week to MONUSCO of two unarmed drone aircraft that are improving the mission’s ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance and gather intelligence.
Kobler said the drones are an excellent deterrent and help to encourage armed groups to surrender without fighting. They also help the mission avoid civilian casualties and minimize risk to its own personnel during operations.
MONUSCO is expecting three more unarmed drones early in the new year.
Kobler expressed cautious optimism that the eastern Congo is entering a new phase.
“There is still some hesitance, but there is a chance, at least, that this time the situation is irreversible, and we are not entering in a few years from now in a new era of violence here," he said. "But this requires not only military action; it requires in particular determined civilian action."
Kobler said improving basic services to citizens and settling root causes of the conflict must be resolved, otherwise there is a risk of losing the military gains.