Democratic Republic of Congo's resource-rich east is again on the brink of a major conflict, a senior UN official warned as he urged the UN Security Council to urgently approve plans for a peace enforcement unit to combat armed rebel groups.

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Roger Meece, head of the UN mission in Congo known as MONUSCO, told the Security Council that the creation of a peace enforcement unit within the peacekeeping force - which would be a new move for the UN - was an "urgently needed and important response to the existing situation on the ground".

Peace enforcement missions allow the use of lethal force in serious combat situations, while peacekeeping operations are intended to support and monitor an already existing ceasefire, diplomats and UN officials say.

The Congolese government has reached an uneasy truce in eastern Congo with M23 rebels and Uganda is now hosting peace talks, but Meece warned of "increased fears and rumours in the area of an imminent resumption of large-scale military actions".

'Volatile situation'

"The overall situation is volatile and precarious, and could break down at any time into large-scale conflict without much, if any, prior warning," Meece said. "Our forces and resources are stretched very thin over a broad area."

"The M23 forces maintain an appearance of being well supplied, well provisioned and well armed," said Meece, adding that the rebels continued to recruit "new combatants, including through the use of force and widespread recruitment of minors."

M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honour a 2009 peace deal. That deal ended in a previous rebellion and led to the rebels' integration into the army. They have since deserted the army.

The M23 rebels took Goma in North Kivu province on November 20, but withdrew from the city 11 days later.

"While there has been a general pause in M23 offensive operations since their temporary occupation of the provincial capital of Goma late last year, the M23 has continued to consolidate their own administration structures in the portion of North Kivu they occupy," Meece said.

Source: Agencies