UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations will start using surveillance drones for the first time in Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday in a landmark intelligence-gathering advance for the world body, officials said.
The drones will be used to monitor the volatile border between DR Congo and Rwanda and movements by militias and armed groups in the east of the country, which has been stricken by conflict for the past three decades.
The United Nations has a huge peackeeping mission in DR Congo, and other missions are eagerly watching the first machines in the hope that their use will be extended.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous is in Goma, the major city in eastern DR Congo, to "preside over the launch of unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.
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 drones, 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.
In recent months UN troops have supported DR Congo forces who beat M23 rebels. UN experts said the rebels were supplied and backed by neighboring Rwanda. The Kigali government denies the charge but has given only reluctant support to the use of the drones.
The Congo government and UN officials say that the next target in the region is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), 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 would like to see the drones used there.