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The M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday warned that they would retaliate if attacked by a peacekeeping brigade that the United Nations has recently approved to deploy to the country's restive northeast to disarm insurgents.
"We, as M23, do not have the right to attack the UN contingent," spokesman Vianney Kazarama told AFP. "But if they attack us, we have the right to react, to retaliate... to defend ourselves."
On March 28, the UN Security Council unanimously approved the creation of a brigade of more than 2,500 troops with a mandate to conduct "targeted offensive operations" against rebels in eastern DR Congo, a mineral-rich area that has been gripped by conflict for more than two decades.
It marked the first time that UN peacekeepers were given a mandate to conduct offensive operations. Many rebel movements and armed tribal militias are active in the east of the country.
M23, named for a peace deal with the government signed on March 23, 2009, emerged out of an ethnic Tutsi mutiny in the army in April 2012, on the grounds that Kinshasa was not upholding the pact. The rebels briefly seized the North Kivu provincial capital Goma in November last year.
Days after the UN decision, M23's political leader Bertrand Bisimwa slammed the move as a declaration of war in the face of ongoing peace talks.
Instead of "encouraging a political solution by supporting the political negotiations... the UN has chosen to wage war against one of the partners for peace", he said in a statement.
The new UN force in the east is due to consist of three infantry battalions, an artillery company, a reconnaissance company and "special forces".
The troops are being mustered by South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania.
South African engagement abroad has become a matter for domestic debate after the killing of 13 South African soldiers in the Central African Republic late last month when rebels ousted president Francois Bozize.
"We take note" of M23's threats, South African military spokesman Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga told AFP. "We are not the ones to decide whether to deploy or not deploy. We are going to deploy as directed by the government, nothing is going to deter us or to make us fear, we are not intimidated by things that are thrown around."
"If we are to deploy into the Democratic Republic of Congo (...) as part of the United Nations intervention force, we will (...) One of our duties is to go to wars, fight wars and win wars."