By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Rwanda won a seat on the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, despite accusations by a U.N. panel that Rwanda's defense minister commands a rebellion in Democratic Republic of Congo, and warned countries against cutting off aid over the charges.
Rwanda was unopposed in its bid for the African seat on the council that South Africa will vacate at the end of December, but still needed approval from two-thirds of the U.N. General Assembly members present to secure the two-year term. It won 148 votes in the 193-nation assembly.
Argentina was also elected to the council unopposed, winning 182 votes. Australia won a seat with 140 votes, Luxembourg with 131 votes and South Korea with 149. Cambodia, Bhutan and Finland failed to secure two-year seats on the council.
There are five veto-holding permanent members of the council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - and 10 temporary members without veto power. Thursday's election was for the term from January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2014.
Rwanda's government said that it would work with all members of the council to ensure "it is responsive and reflective of the views and aspirations of the developing world."
"Rwanda's troubling and tragic past allows it to bring to the UNSC a unique perspective on matters of war and peace," it posted on a Twitter account created for its Security Council term (@RwandaUNSC).
Before the vote, the Congolese delegation told the General Assembly it objected to Rwanda joining the Security Council, accusing its neighbor of harboring "war criminals operating in the eastern part of the DRC and who are being sought by international justice."
A confidential U.N. report, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, cast a shadow over Rwanda's election to the United Nations' 15-member power center - which has the ability to impose sanctions and authorize military interventions.
The Security Council's "Group of Experts" said that Rwanda and Uganda - despite their strong denials - continued to support M23 rebels in their six-month fight against Congolese government troops in the east of the country.
RWANDA WARNS AGAINST CUTTING OFF AID
Rwandan President Paul Kagame posted a declaration on Twitter welcoming the result: "No matter what haters say ... justice&truth will prevail!!! Sometimes it just requires a bit of good fight for all that...!!!"
In an interview with Reuters, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo warned countries against cutting off aid to Rwanda because of the U.N. report.
"It would be the biggest mistake that any donor country could make for Rwanda," Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told Reuters at the United Nations, shortly after Rwanda won a seat on the U.N. Security Council. "Rwanda is deserving of aid."
The United States, Sweden and the Netherlands have all suspended some aid to Rwanda, which relies on donors for about 40 percent of its budget. Last month the European Union froze further budgetary support to Rwanda.
However, Britain unblocked part of its cash in September, praising Rwanda for constructively pursuing peace. Mushikiwabo also rejected Congo's calls for sanctions against individuals named in the U.N. experts report, a 44-page document that she described as untrue and highly problematic.
She also sought to assure Congo that Rwanda would be a responsible council member and add value to it.
Philippe Bolopion of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch criticized the inclusion of Rwanda on the Security Council
"After blatantly violating the Security Council's arms embargo and undermining the work of the U.N. by propping up the abusive M23 rebels, Rwanda is rewarded with a seat at the table," he said.
"Kigali is now in a position to try to shield its own officials implicated in abuses from U.N. sanctions, which is a flagrant conflict of interest," Bolopion said in a statement. "Other Security Council members now have an even greater responsibility to hold Rwanda to account."
Britain's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Philip Parham put a more positive spin on Rwanda's election, saying: "We look forward to working with them on issues of international peace and security including the efforts to try to end the cycle of violence in the eastern DRC."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice issued a brief statement congratulating the incoming council members but did not mention Congo. The U.S. State Department has declined to comment on the U.N. experts' report, which has not been officially released.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr described Australia's election as a "big juicy, decisive win" that endorsed the country as a good global citizen.
"For us as a middle power a long way from the centers of clout in the world, the centers of power in the world, this is a lovely moment," Carr told reporters after the vote.
South Africa, Colombia, Germany, India and Portugal are leaving the Security Council in December. Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Pakistan, Togo and Morocco will remain until the end of 2013.
The last time Rwanda was on the council was in 1994-95. That coincided with a genocide in which 800,000 people were killed when Rwanda's Hutu-led government and ethnic militias went on a 100-day killing spree, massacring Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The Congolese government on Wednesday demanded targeted sanctions against Rwandan and Ugandan officials named in the U.N. experts report.
According to the U.N. experts, who monitor compliance with sanctions and an arms embargo on the Congo, Rwandan Defense Minister General James Kabarebe was ultimately commanding the rebellion and both Rwanda and Uganda were providing weapons, troops and military and political aid to the insurgency.
(Additional reporting by Jenny Clover in Kigali and Yara Bayoumy in Nairobi; Editing by Paul Simao and Eric Walsh)