By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council has given a green light for peacekeepers to use surveillance drones in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after weeks of delay over concerns of Russia, China and Rwanda about the use of aerial spy equipment.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote to the 15-member council late last month to advise that peacekeepers in Congo planned to use unmanned aerial systems "to enhance situational awareness and to permit timely decision-making" in dealing with a nine-month insurgency by M23 rebels in the mineral-rich east.
In a response to Ban, the president of the council for January, Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Masood Khan, said the body had taken note of the plans for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo to use drones - effectively approving the proposal.
But the council also noted that it would be a trial use "in line with the Secretariat's intention to use assets to enhance situational awareness, if available, on a case-by case basis," Khan wrote in a January 22 letter that was released on Thursday.
He wrote that the Democratic Republic of Congo operation would be "without prejudice to the ongoing consideration by relevant United Nations bodies of legal, financial and technical implications of the use of unmanned aerial systems."
Independent U.N. experts say the M23 rebellion, which has dragged Congo's eastern region back toward war, has received cross-border support from Rwanda and Uganda. Both governments strongly deny the accusations.
Rwanda - which this month began a two-year term as a Security Council member - had initially opposed the use of drones in Congo, saying it did not want Africa to become a laboratory for foreign intelligence devices, while Russia and China had also raised concerns.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous earlier this month told the Security Council that three drones were needed to fly along the porous border in Congo's mountainous east.
The United Nations has wanted surveillance drones for eastern Congo since 2008. Alan Doss, the former head of the U.N. peacekeeping force there had asked the council for drones and other items to improve real-time intelligence gathering.
The request was never met, but the idea generated new interest last year after M23 rebels began taking over large swathes of eastern Congo. The U.N. force in Congo suffered a severe blow to its image in November after it did not intervene when well-equipped M23 rebels seized control of the eastern Congolese city of Goma. The rebels withdrew after 11 days.
Ban is expected to submit a report to the Security Council in the coming weeks recommending ways of improving the U.N. force in Congo, known as MONUSCO. [ID:nL1E8ND0OO]
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen)