By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A delayed U.N.-mediated peace deal aimed at ending two decades of conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now broadly agreed and could be ready for signing later this month, U.N. officials and diplomats said on Wednesday.
African leaders failed to sign the deal last week due to concerns of some countries over who would command a new regional force that would deploy in eastern Congo and take on armed groups operating in the conflict-torn region.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters on Tuesday that all the key countries involved appeared ready to sign the agreement, though he declined to provide details on when and where it could be finalized.
Diplomats said the dispute over the nature of the command for the so-called enforcement brigade had not been entirely resolved, but possible dates for signing the deal somewhere in Africa in mid-February - with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon present - were already being discussed.
Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky declined to comment on the secretary-general's travel plans, though he said Ban was in contact with "regional leaders" on the issue.
Envoys said that one of the main reasons the deal was not signed last week was that three countries in the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc - South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique - felt they did not have enough information on the brigade.
Ladsous has made clear that it would fight under the banner of MONUSCO, which means it would be under the same command as regular MONUSCO troops, who conduct patrols and support the Congolese security forces.
But diplomats say South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique, which are the most likely candidates to supply the several thousand troops of the brigade, believe it should have its own command.
The countries take the view that MONUSCO has not performed well under its current command, such as when it allowed M23 rebels to occupy the eastern city of Goma last year for 11 days before they withdrew.
U.N. TERMS DELAY "PROCEDURAL"
Ban and other U.N. officials and envoys have described the dispute as "procedural," and diplomats say all of Congo's neighbors - including Rwanda and Uganda - and most members of SADC are ready to sign.
Ladsous was asked about the issue again on Wednesday at a news conference at U.N. headquarters. He insisted that there was no collapse of the agreement last week.
"I would not say that the deal fell apart," he said. "There were further discussions."
Ladsous said that if approved by the U.N. Security Council, the enforcement would be equipped with a three-pronged mandate to prevent the expansion of armed groups in eastern Congo, as well to "neutralize" and disarm them.
It would have the aid of unmanned surveillance drones to hunt down armed militias difficult to spot in the vast territory of eastern Congo. Ladsous said the drones would provide an element of deterrence, since the rebels would know they were being watched.
The creation of an enforcement brigade within a U.N. peacekeeping mission, as well as the planned use of drones, is new for the United Nations, U.N. officials say.
But diplomats and U.N. officials say that no increase in U.N. military activity can end the bloodshed without a peace agreement between Kinshasa and its neighbors covering Congo's mineral-rich east.
"It all hinges on the political framework agreement," a Western diplomat said. "Without a regional peace deal, there can be no peace."
The Congolese government has been negotiating with M23 rebels in neighboring Uganda. The rebels said last week that they hope to sign a peace deal with Kinshasa that would end their ten-month revolt by the end of February.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by David Brunnstrom)