By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The command, equipment quality and fighting ability of rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo when they captured the frontier city of Goma in November suggests they had external support, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday.
While Ban did not say from where the external support came to help the M23 rebels take Goma on November 20, U.N. experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda of aiding the revolt in the resource-rich region. Both governments strongly deny any involvement.
In a three-month report on the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, known as MONUSCO, Ban said the M23 rebels had shown uncharacteristic capacities during the offensive to take Goma. The rebels eventually withdrew from the city 11 days later.
"The subsequent speed, efficiency and success of the M23's renewed offensive were rendered possible by a sudden increase in the group's combatants, coordinated multi-pronged attacks, and attacks with coordination between infantry and fire support," Ban said in the February 15 report released on Tuesday.
M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal. That deal ended a previous rebellion and led to the rebels' integration into the army. They have since deserted the army.
"MONUSCO's observations of the command and control ability of the attacking force, the effective coordination of its fire support, the quality of its equipment and its general fighting ability, particularly during night time, all suggested the existence of external support, direct and indirect," Ban said.
At the time of the advance on Goma, U.N. officials said they were surprised by the increased strength of the rebels but appeared reluctant to officially blame it on outside support.
Despite Rwanda's strong denials, the U.N. Security Council's Group of Experts, which monitors compliance with sanctions and an arms embargo on the Congo, said in a report late last year that Rwanda's defense minister was commanding the M23 revolt and Kigali was arming the rebels and sending troops.
Some countries criticized MONUSCO for failing to stop the fall of Goma. But the world body defended its actions, saying the peacekeepers could only have taken on the rebels in support of the Congolese army, who had fled the city.
In the wake of the blow to MONUSCO's image, Ban is due to recommend to the U.N. Security Council shortly that it approve the creation of an enforcement brigade within MONUSCO to take on the armed groups in eastern Congo, according to U.N. officials.
Peace enforcement missions allow the use of lethal force in serious combat situations, while peacekeeping operations are intended to support and monitor an already existing ceasefire, diplomats and U.N. officials say.
An uneasy truce is now in place between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels, and Uganda is currently hosting talks between the two parties. But progress towards a negotiated settlement to the crisis has been slow.
Separately a delayed U.N.-mediated regional peace deal aimed at ending two decades of conflict in the east of Congo is due to be signed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on February 24, the United Nations said on Saturday.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)