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PARIS (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers in Democratic Republic of Congo will begin using unarmed drones on a trial basis to monitor its war-torn east, the head of peacekeeping operations told Reuters on Sunday.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, in Paris to attend France's Independence Day celebrations, told Reuters a deal signed on Friday with an unnamed company would allow for a "complete picture of what is happening" on the ground.
Thick forests, rugged terrain and few roads have complicated peacekeepers' efforts to control the area.
"We have just signed a commercial contract for the UAVs, and I say UAVs, not drones, as they are unarmed," Ladsous said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.
"This is a major innovation. For the first time the U.N. is going into state-of-the-art, 21st-century technology."
U.N. peacekeeping troops have been in eastern Congo for more than a decade, and the MONUSCO force is currently 17,000 strong - the largest U.N. force in the world.
But the complex conflict has dragged on, killing millions through violence, famine and disease since the 1990s. That has led the U.N. to create a new "intervention brigade" - part of the MONUSCO force but charged with the task of not merely peacekeeping but taking proactive steps against rebel groups.
It has already begun patrolling and is approaching full strength, Ladsous said.
Most peacekeepers from Tanzania and South Africa are already in place, and those from Malawi are expected to be deployed at the end of July or early August to complete the 3,000-strong force, he said.
Ladsous defended the brigade's mission to take a more active approach to neutralizing rebel groups. U.N. peacekeeping principles stipulate impartiality and "non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate".
"Neutrality, impartiality: that is the case for classic peacekeeping," said Ladsous.
"How can you be neutral or impartial to those terrible armed groups who have been for years now, a decade or more, killing civilians, raping women, recruiting child soldiers? No, you cannot be neutral."
Congo has been afflicted by an insurgency by M23 rebels in its border area with Rwanda and Uganda in the last year, and U.N. experts accused Rwanda of sending troops and weapons across the border to support the M23. Rwanda denies the accusation.
Ladsous also said French armed forces had signed a deal with the United Nations on Saturday to protect U.N. peacekeepers against terrorism attacks in Mali, where France intervened in January to stop al Qaeda-linked militants from overrunning the West African nation.
Paris hopes to pull back its force of 3,500 soldiers to 1,000 by the year's end and wants to hand over most security responsibilities to the United Nations as the country prepares for elections on July 28.
Although the bulk of the French military effort is over, sporadic attacks by Islamist rebels still occur. Two French soldiers were wounded last month.
"In case we face a very difficult situation, a very dangerous one, then we will ask them to support us," Ladsous said.
"Let's face it, it does provide politically and psychologically, deterrent-wise also, a very strong reassurance and comfort."
Deployed on July 1, the U.N.'s mission in Mali, involving 12,600 soldiers and police, will be responsible for traditional policing, allowing French forces to concentrate on counter-terrorism efforts and peace enforcement.
A U.N. report last month called the situation in Mali precarious and said African troops were not properly equipped.
Reporting by Alexandria Sage; editing by Andrew Roche