UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Thursday backed plans by the Democratic Republic of Congo and U.N. peacekeepers to begin a military campaign to "neutralize" a Rwandan rebel group in the country's rugged eastern provinces.
The U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUSCO) has already started preparatory operations ahead of an offensive to dislodge the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which has been at the heart of years of conflict in Central Africa's Great Lakes region.
The FDLR, which includes former soldiers and Hutu militiamen responsible for carrying out Rwanda's 1994 genocide, failed to meet a January deadline to disarm and surrender.
"The FDLR has not only failed to unconditionally and fully surrender and demobilize, but has also continued to recruit new fighters in their ranks," the 15-member Security Council said in a statement.
"The Security Council further recalls that the swift neutralization of the FDLR is a top priority in bringing stability to and protecting the civilians of the DRC and the Great Lakes region."
It called on Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila to swiftly approve and implement a joint Congolese and MONUSCO plan "to neutralize the FDLR by commencing military operations immediately."
U.N. officials say active support of the Congolese armed forces is vital for success against some 1,500 seasoned FDLR combatants spread across eastern Congo.
They also say Kabila's support for MONUSCO has been lackluster so far, while the Congolese army has been responsible for human rights violations, including a mass rape in Minova in 2012 for which senior officers have not been held accountable.
Kabila told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that his army is ready to help peacekeepers fight the FDLR.
A senior U.N. official has said the operation would involve a special unit within MONUSCO known as the intervention brigade, which is mandated to aggressively search out and neutralize armed groups, along with regular MONUSCO peacekeepers.
The council statement said it was ready to consider targeted sanctions against individuals or entities found to be supporting the FDLR.
Kabila has urged the U.N. to reduce MONUSCO's troops by more than 50 percent by the end of the year.
An internal review of MONUSCO, obtained by Reuters this week, recommends reducing the number of MONUSCO peacekeepers by nearly 10 percent from roughly 20,000 at present, while making it more effective at protecting civilians.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols. Editing by Andre Grenon)