UN looks at leaner force in DR Congo

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is calling for a cut of 2,000 troops in its force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN's biggest peacekeeping mission.

Ban made the recommendation in a strategic review of the 20,000-strong MONUSCO submitted to the UN Security Council last week, just as the mission was gearing up for an offensive against Hutu rebels in the east.

DR Congo President Joseph Kabila has called for a major drawdown of the UN force, suggesting a reduction of more than half of its strength by the end of 2015.

But Ban concluded that cutting more than 2,000 troops "would have negative implications for the ability of the force to implement its mandate," according to the report obtained by AFP on Monday.

MONUSCO should be transformed "to reflect a more mobile and agile force, able to pre-empt or respond to crises quickly," Ban said.

This would involve supplying peacekeepers with lighter equipment and more aircraft to turn them into more rapidly deployable units, he said.

The deployment of a rapid-response brigade made up of troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi should be extended for another year, with the unit taking the lead planning and combat role, he said.

Set up 15 years ago, MONUSCO is working alongside Congolese government troops to root out dozens of rebel groups in the east including Hutu fighters who were given a January 2 deadline to surrender.

The Congolese government welcomed the recommendation for a more efficient MONUSCO force.

"We've always said MONUSCO could do better. More mobility, more agility and more efficiency -- this meets our concerns," government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP, though he said he wanted to let military "experts" respond to the proposed troop reduction.

- Fighting Hutu rebels -

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters earlier that UN troops were taking up positions to support a planned offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The group includes fighters suspected of having participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and who crossed into the eastern DR Congo, carrying out brutal attacks on civilians.

UN and Congolese forces on Monday seized several rebel bases in a separate offensive launched against a Burundi rebel group, the National Liberation Forces (FNL).

A spokesman for MONUSCO in DR Congo said troops taking part in joint operations against FNL fighters in the east of the country had taken several Hutu rebel strongholds.

Lieutenant Colonel Felix-Prosper Basse said the bases were located near the Burundi border in South Kivu.

Asked whether the operation might harm the planned offensive against FDLR, Colonel Patrick Opia, operations commander for the Congolese military (FARDC), said it served as a caution.

"This operation is a warning to FDLR that FARDC and UN forces are determined to hit hard," he said, adding that the operation would last 45 days and could be extended.

UN officials are pushing for the disarming of dozens of rebel and splinter groups after two decades of conflict in the eastern DR Congo, much of it fuelled by the lucrative trade in diamonds and minerals.

The International Crisis Group warned last month that the "entire stabilization agenda for the eastern provinces was at risk" over the UN's failure to root out the armed groups.

Ban said it was time for MONUSCO to begin talks with the Kinshasa government on the gradual takeover of the tasks that the mission has been performing.

But there were no recommendations on a firm exit strategy for the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).