Arthur Zahidi N'Goma, one of five vice-presidents of the country said on Monday that any deployment should take place as quickly as possible.

 

"I hope in February, because it is an obligatory step before elections are held," he added.

 

He made his remarks after the close of the fourth summit of the 53-member AU in the Nigerian capital, which endorsed an earlier decision by the grouping to send a force.

 

Free elections

 

The AU recently began consultations with member states on the planned peacekeeping force which will be tasked with disarming mainly ethnic Hutu rebels who fled to the east of the DRC from neighbouring Rwanda, after taking part in the genocidal massacres of 1994 in that country.

 

The first democratic and free elections in 40 years in the sprawling central African country are scheduled for June, to choose a successor to the transitional government headed by President Joseph Kabila, which includes former rebels, but few believe they will take place on time.

 

The east of the country remains largely in the hands of former rebels, and unrest among the many militias and ethnic groups has been used by some politicians and former rebels as a reason for delaying the vote.