GOMA, DR Congo - The United Nations said Tuesday its peacekeeping troops would "go after" remaining rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed with the UN's first-ever surveillance drones.
The UN's special offensive force in DR Congo -- the first of its kind -- chalked up a major victory last month over the armed groups that have long harrowed the country's east, helping the Congolese army fight the powerful M23 rebels into surrender.
After that victory, there is a "prospect of being able to go after other armed groups. Well, that's just what we are going to do," said the head of UN peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, from the northeastern city of Goma.
Ladsous was speaking after the UN peacekeeping mission, a 20,000-troop force known as MONUSCO, launched an Italian-made surveillance drone from the airport in Goma -- the first time the United Nations has used such pilotless aircraft in any country.
MONUSCO, which is tasked with "neutralising" the country's armed groups, currently has two unarmed drones. Both are fitted exclusively for reconnaissance missions, to back up its ground forces.
The mission is to be equipped with three more by March next year, enabling it to run round-the-clock air surveillance.
The drones have a range of about 200 kilometres (120 miles), operate at altitudes of between 2,000 and 3,000 metres (6,500 and 9,800 feet), and can conduct surveillance even in the eastern region's densely forested areas, MONUSCO said.
The deployment of drones comes at a "symbolic" moment, Ladsous said, after the "fundamental change" on the ground when Congolese troops backed by the new UN intervention brigade forced the M23 to surrender on November 5.
The drones will be "an incomparable tool", Ladsous said. They will fly over North and South Kivu provinces and "are going to give us precise usable information in real time in tactical terms," he added.
The drones will survey mineral-rich territory fought over by dozens of armed movements, which the 3,000-strong special brigade -- comprising soldiers from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania -- has been ordered to neutralise.
The aircraft will also be used to survey the porous borders between North Kivu and Rwanda and Uganda, in a bid to prevent the two countries providing support to groups inside DR Congo.
The UN accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23 -- a charge both countries denied.
MONUSCO is one of the two biggest UN peacekeeping missions in the world, along with the force in Darfur, Sudan. It has an annual budget of $1.5 billion.
First deployed to DR Congo in 1999 as an observer mission called MONUC, the force has seen its mandate expand over the years but has hitherto failed to prevent conflict.
Eastern DR Congo was the cradle of back-to-back wars that ravaged the country between 1996 and 2003.
The region has rich deposits of minerals including gold and coltan, a key component in electronic devices, but is ravaged by rebels and militia who rape and murder with impunity, according to rights groups.