UN fears Congo-Rwanda operation may spark abuses

(Adds U.N. Secretary-General representative comments)

GENEVA, Jan 27 (Reuters) - A joint Rwandan-Congolese operation to crush Rwandan Hutu rebels hiding in Congo could force large numbers of civilians to flee and trigger further human rights abuses, senior U.N. officials said on Tuesday.

Democratic Republic of Congo let in more than 3,500 Rwandan soldiers last week to hunt for the rebels, some of them participants in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. At least nine rebels have been killed in the operation in DRC's eastern North Kivu province.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she was concerned about the safety of civilians in the area and reports the offensive was making it difficult for peacekeepers and aid workers to provide assistance to locals.

"I'm ... concerned that the joint military counter-operations, unless properly planned and executed, could lead to further human rights abuses being perpetrated against the civilian population who are, in effect, caught between the conflicting parties," Pillay said.

Separately, the U.N. Secretary-General's representative on the human rights of displaced people, Walter Kaelin, urged the commanders of the joint force to better identify bystanders to the conflict and ensure humanitarian aid reached the needy.

"I fear that unless a clear distinction is made between fighters and the civilian population, and precautionary measures to protect civilians are taken, these operations will trigger further massive displacement of civilians and deepen the humanitarian crisis," he said in a statement.

The presence of the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in eastern Congo has unleashed a recurring cycle of bloodshed.

Rwanda has twice invaded its much larger neighbour under the pretext of rooting out the rebels, sparking a 1998-2003 war that caused a humanitarian catastrophe estimated to have killed 5.4 million people.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila's decision to allow Rwandan soldiers to pursue the FDLR within Congo has been touted by his government as a move to pacify the troubled east. (Reporting by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Katie Nguyen)