UN deploys spy drones in DR Congo to monitor border and militias

Move marks major step in surveillance of West African region rich in minerals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 4:55am


The United Nations was yesterday scheduled to start using surveillance drones for the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a landmark intelligence-gathering advance for the world body.

The drones will be used to monitor the volatile border between DR Congo and Rwanda and movements by militias and armed groups in a region stricken by three decades of conflict.

The United Nations has a huge peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, and other missions and countries are eagerly watching the first spy drones in the hope that their use will be extended. UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous was yesterday in Goma, the major city in eastern DR Congo, to "preside over the launch of unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles" , said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

The drones would be "an important tool to assist the mission in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians," Nesirky added.

The mission will start with two of the spies in the sky, built by Italian firm Selex ES, a subsidiary of the Italian giant Finmeccanica, UN officials said.

Up to five could be in operation after trials are completed, they added. General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, military commander of the UN mission, MONUSCO, said last month that by March or April there would be a 24-hour drone surveillance operation in eastern DR Congo.

The vast mineral-rich region is at the heart of a zone where millions have died in conflict over the past decades.

The United Nations formed a 3,000-strong intervention brigade this year to operate in eastern DR Congo with a special 'offensive peacekeeping' mandate, which has drastically changed the UN mission alongside the looming shadow of the unarmed surveillance vehicles.

UN troops supported DR Congo forces who beat M23 rebels last month. UN experts said the rebels were backed by neighbouring Rwanda. The Kigali government denies the charge but has given only reluctant support to the use of the drones which could spot any arms crossing one of DR Congo's borders.

The Congo government and UN officials say that the next target in the region is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which is made up of ethnic Hutu rebels, some of whom are accused of taking part in Rwanda's 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis.

The Ivory Coast government has already said it would like the UN to use the surveillance drones to monitor its borders. The commanders of other peacekeeping missions, such as in South Sudan, have also said they want to see drones there. Intelligence is taking a higher profile throughout the UN peacekeeping system which has traditionally relied heavily on information provided by host governments.