By Aaron Ross
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo and U.N. peacekeepers should take military action against a Rwandan Hutu militia if it fails to meet a Jan. 2 deadline for disarmament, the U.S. envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region said on Tuesday.
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, some of whose leaders are implicated in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, has failed to surrender unconditionally, envoy Russ Feingold said from Washington during a teleconference.
The militia, which has operated in eastern Congo since 2000, was granted a six-month reprieve from military action by two African regional bodies in July to give it more time to disarm.
Human rights groups accuse the militia of abuses and say it has been at the heart of a regional conflict in eastern Congo since its inception. Many say its removal is essential to advancing peace.
"Any delay in military operations by the DRC (Congo) military and MONUSCO (peacekeepers) after Jan. 2 will play into the FDLR's hands and only serve to enable the group to commit human rights abuses," Feingold said.
Only about 150 rank-and-file fighters of an estimated 1,400 remaining combatants had surrendered, he said.
The group says it is committed to voluntary disarmament but calls the deadline unrealistic given the number of fighters and family members it needs to relocate to disarmament camps.
Feingold said the militia's call for more delays is a stalling tactic.
Some 67 combatants and 186 dependents surrendered on Sunday in eastern Congo's South Kivu province, according to MONUSCO.
Feingold said he is confident the Congolese army and MONUSCO's Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) are prepared to launch operations after the deadline, but gave no details.
Regional analysts doubt the willingness of the army and FIB members South Africa and Tanzania to take on the militia, given tensions between those countries and Rwanda, which advocates a hard line against the rebels.
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Alan Crosby)