By John Kanyunyu
GOMA, Congo, Jan 22 (Reuters) - United Nations peacekeepers in Congo demanded on Thursday to be given a role in joint military operations by Congolese and Rwandan armies against Hutu rebels, saying they feared for the fate of civilians otherwise.
The U.N. force in Democratic Republic of Congo, known as MONUC, is the world body’s largest such mission but it has been largely kept in the dark over the joint operation, which has seen over 3,500 Rwandan soldiers cross into Congo this week.
Over the past 15 years of war and chaos in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Congo and Rwanda have long traded accusations of supporting each other’s rebels, but analysts say the current operation marks a dramatic shift in policy.
"We are just observers at the moment ... we have to play a role. They have to discuss the operation with MONUC," U.N. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
"They cannot carry out an operation without us as we are present in the area, we are on the ground ... and our mandate is to protect civilians," Dietrich added.
Concerns for the safety of civilians are high because the FDLR, the Hutu rebel group targeted in the operation, has turned on them when attacked in the past.
The U.N.’s 17,000-strong force has previously worked closely with Congo’s army: training and feeding it and often using helicopter gunships to support soldiers in battles to restore central authority across the mineral-rich but rebel-infested east.
But cooperation has soured recently as accusations of abuse have mounted against Congolese forces, which remain a rag-tag collection of fighters formed from the plethora of rebel and government factions that fought each other in a 1998-2003 war.
RAPE AND PILLAGE
Human rights groups have accused the army of rape and pillage as it retreated in the face of advances across North Kivu province by Congolese Tutsi rebels late last year.
Dietrich said that the U.N.’s force commander was in Goma, North Kivu’s main town, to try to improve cooperation.
"Hopefully by the end of the week we will know what MONUC will do in this context ... (but) in order to protect the population, maybe we will have to relocate them," he said.
"We will not participate in any action against the FLDR," Dietrich said.
About 250,000 people fled their homes in last year’s fighting, sparking a humanitarian disaster and bringing to over one million the number of civilians displaced since 2006 polls.
Wars since 1998 have killed over five million Congolese.
Peacekeepers said the Rwandan soldiers were beginning to deploy beyond Rutshuru, a town 100 km (60 miles) north of Goma, and were moving towards areas controlled by the Hutu rebels.
Previous efforts to dislodge the FDLR, which includes some perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, have failed.
The FDLR numbers about 6,000 and has survived by exploiting lucrative mines and collaborating with various factions in the capital Kinshasa who used it to fight Tutsi-led forces in Congo.
Many Congolese are suspicious of the joint operation after previous Rwandan incursions failed to defeat the Hutu rebels and brought accusations that Rwanda was plundering Congo’s mines.
The Kinshasa government has insisted the operations will last 10-15 days and Rwandan forces will then leave immediately.
Fears over safety of civilians have been accentuated by another joint offensive — led by Uganda, to hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in Congo’s remote northeast — which has brought reprisal attacks killing 600 civilians, but captured no LRA commanders.
(Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis in Dakar; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Mark Trevelyan)