UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council authorized a new "intervention brigade" for Congo on Thursday with an unprecedented mandate to take military action against rebel groups to help bring peace to the country's conflict-wracked east.
The resolution, which the council adopted unanimously, gives the brigade a mandate to carry out offensive operations alone or with Congolese army troops to neutralize and disarm armed groups.
The brigade is unprecedented in U.N. peacekeeping because of its offensive mandate. The resolution, however, states clearly that it would be established for one year "on an exceptional basis and without creating a precedent" to the principles of U.N. peacekeeping.
The resolution, sponsored by France, the United States and Togo, would give the brigade a mandate to operate "in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner" to ensure that armed group can't seriously threaten government authority or the security of civilians.
U.S. deputy ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis said coordination between the military and civilian sides of the U.N mission remains crucial to ensuring the protection of women and children, "and to prevent the continuation of the horrible streak of sexual violence" in the Congo.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall welcomed the resolution's adoption as an important step toward peace and a time when the women of eastern Congo "no longer need to fear sexual violence and children are protected from the impact of conflict."
Mineral-rich eastern Congo has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias before a Tutsi-led rebel army took power in Rwanda. More than 1 million Rwandan Hutus fled across the border into Congo, and Rwanda has invaded Congo several times to take action against Hutu militias there. The exploitation of Congo's mineral resources also continues to exacerbate conflict and instability on the ground.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters after the vote that producing a mandate for the creation of an offensive force for the first time complicated negotiations, and "I think ... what has been decided is a step toward peace enforcement."
That notion prompted some concerns, including from Guatemala's U.N. Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, who warned about compromising U.N. neutrality.
The brigade will be part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, within its troop ceiling of 19,815. The United Nations currently has more than 17,700 U.N. peacekeepers and more than 1,400 international police in Congo and the resolution extended the force's mandate until March 31, 2014.
The "intervention brigade" headquarters will be in the key eastern city of Goma. It will consist of three infantry battalions, one artillery company and one special forces and reconnaissance company, according to the resolution. U.N. officials say it will probably include between 2,000 and 3,000 troops and the U.N. peacekeeping department will now ask U.N. member states to contribute troops.
The council said the brigade must have "an exit strategy" and it will consider its continued presence based on its performance and whether Congo has made sufficient progress in reforming its security sector and creating a Congolese "rapid reaction force" able to take over responsibility for neutralizing armed groups and reducing the threat they pose.
In late February, 11 central Africa leaders and the United Nations signed an agreement to try to establish peace in eastern Congo.
The resolution demands that Congo and the 10 other African nations implement the peace accord "in good faith" and expresses the council's intention "to take appropriate measures as necessary" against any party that doesn't comply with its commitments.
Under the peace deal, the signatories pledged not to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring countries or provide support to armed groups. The Congolese government pledged to reform its army and police, consolidate its authority in the volatile east and promote reconciliation, tolerance and democratization.
The signatories include Rwanda and Uganda, which were accused in a U.N. report last year of helping aid the M23 rebel group, which swept through eastern Congo in 2012 and captured Goma in November but pulled out under international pressure. Both countries denied the allegations.
Rwanda's U.N. Ambassador Eugene Gasana told the council after the vote that his government supports the peace deal and is committed to peace in the region.
U.N. peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians from the M23 rebels, whose movement began in April 2012 when hundreds of troops defected from the Congolese armed forces.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report in February recommending an "intervention brigade" that the M23 rebellion underscored the continuing fragility of the situation in eastern Congo. But he said he is convinced the peace accord offers an opportunity for key nations to collectively address the underlying causes of the conflict in the east and the surrounding Great Lakes region and end the recurring violence.
The resolution strongly condemns the continued presence of the M23 in the immediate vicinity of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, and its attempts to establish "an illegitimate parallel administration in North Kivu."
It demands that the M23 and other armed groups, including those seeking the "liberation" of Rwanda and Uganda, immediately halt all violence and "permanently disband and lay down their arms." It also strongly condemns their continuing human rights abuses including summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence and large-scale recruitment and use of children.
Besides disbanding armed groups, the resolution says the intervention brigade will monitor an arms embargo along with a panel of U.N. experts and observe and report on flows of military personnel, weapons and equipment across the border of eastern Congo including by "surveillance capabilities provided by unmanned aerial systems."
In January, the Security Council gave approval for deployment of unarmed surveillance drones for eastern Congo that would provide intelligence for the peace enforcement brigade as well as the larger U.N. peacekeeping force. U.N. officials expect them to be deployed at the beginning of the summer.
Associated Press Writer Maria Sanminiatelli contributed to this report from the United Nations.