UNITED NATIONS (AP) — United Nations officials say a major offensive has begun against a Rwanda-linked rebel group in eastern Congo following last month's defeat of the M23 rebels.
The officials on Wednesday told the Security Council that defeating the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, will be difficult because unlike the M23 they live among the general population, increasing the risk of civilian deaths. The group was formed by extremist Hutus from neighboring Rwanda who took part in that country's 1994 genocide, then fled across the border.
But the officials sounded more optimistic about the troubled region than they have in a long time.
"Many areas are liberated," said the U.N. Special Representative in Congo, Martin Kobler. "You see it in the eyes of the population, and there is still some hesitancy, but there is a chance that this time the situation is irreversible."
A document formalizing the end of hostilities between the Congo government and the M23 will be signed Thursday in Nairobi, said U.N. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson. Negotiations took about a year.
The offensive against the FDLR began Nov. 27. Other, smaller armed groups also are the target, but some already are giving up their weapons with the defeat of the M23, which was widely believed to be financed and backed by Rwanda.
"Important progress was made this week," Kobler said, especially with the opening of a key route from the newly liberated town of Pinga toward the regional city of Goma. The road had been closed for two years, he said.
In Kinshasa, the commander of the U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, Lt. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, said the FDLR "has one last opportunity to turn themselves in, and if not, we will remove them."
Kobler estimated the size of the FDLR forces at 1,500 to 1,800, but that's difficult to estimate as many live among the civilian population.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud, the current Security Council president, called the defeat of the M23 a success but a fragile one. Last month, the M23 fled under pressure from the Congolese army, U.N. peacekeepers and a newly created U.N. special intervention brigade.
"When you look at where we were eight months ago, I'd say that's quite a feat," Araud said.
Congo, with a population of 66 million, has been ripped by conflict for nearly two decades. Armed groups have thrived in its mineral-rich forests, despite the presence of nearly 20,000 blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers.
The U.N. officials also were optimistic about the launch of the first fleet of U.N. drones this month in the eastern Congo. The Security Council gave approval in January for the trial use of unarmed drones for intelligence gathering there. Five in all are being launched in the region.
Congolese Minister of Defense Luba Tambo has said the drones will play a critical role in helping patrol the porous border with Rwanda.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed.