Southern African peace force 'gets mandate to fight Congo rebels'

Southern African leaders have agreed to allow a 4,000-strong regional peacekeeping force to engage directly with rebels fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, officials said.

A regional peacekeeping force will be able to combat "whoever is trying to destabilise the situation in the eastern part of Congo," the Southern African Development Community (SADC) secretary general Tomaz Salomao told AFP after a regional meeting late on Friday.

No deployment date has been fixed.

In an extraordinary summit in the Mozambique capital Maputo, leaders of the 14-member bloc decided on a separate command structure and rules of engagement for the force, though it would nominally fall under the United Nations.

The force still needs UN Security Council clearance.

"If we do not have this mandate we will be creating the impression we are invading," said Salomao.

Logistical issues such as repatriating injured or killed troops still need to be finalised, he added.

South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Tanzania have already pledged troops for the regional force.

Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete hailed the decision reached at the summit, also attended by DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, saying it would lead to "a better situation in the Congo".

"It is a big leap forward for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Kikwete, who heads the SADC's security wing.

Regional groupings have been trying since July to set up a neutral international force to break up the numerous militia groups that prey on civilians in eastern DR Congo.

But African leaders wanted assurances any peacekeepers they send will have the mandate to engage the rebels rather than simply enforcing peace as under the current UN mandate, diplomatic sources told AFP earlier.

The 17,000-strong force of the UN mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO) operates under a limited mandate that only allows it to protect civilians, not engage directly with rebel forces.

During the sacking of the key Dr Congo city of Goma in November by rebels from the Movement of March 23 (M23), UN peacekeepers were unable to step in and stop their advance.

Kabila's government and M23 rebels have been holding peace talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

The negotiations in Kampala are the latest in several bids to end a long-running conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of people in eastern DR Congo from their homes.