UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The United Nations announced Thursday that it has selected its first unarmed surveillance drone, an Italian-made plane that will be tried out by peacekeepers in eastern Congo, which has been engulfed in conflict for nearly two decades.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the world body's peacekeeping department chose an unmanned aerial vehicle produced by Selex ES, known as the Falco, which is "capable of carrying a range of payloads including several types of high-resolution sensors."
The U.N. Security Council gave approval in January for the trial use of unarmed drones for intelligence gathering in eastern Congo. Nesirky said deployment of the medium-altitude, medium-endurance drone is planned in the coming weeks.
In March, the Security Council authorized a new "intervention brigade" with an unprecedented mandate to carry out offensive operations to neutralize armed groups. It is part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, the world body's largest, with a capacity for nearly 20,000 military and international police.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation of 70 million people that is equal in size to Western Europe, has seen its mineral-rich east engulfed in fighting since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. More than 1 million Rwandan Hutus fled across the border into Congo, and Rwanda has invaded Congo to take action against Hutu militias there.
Other armed groups have also been engaged in combat, including the M23 rebel group which swept through eastern Congo in 2012 and captured the key city of Goma last November, before pulling out under international pressure. The M23, whose movement began in April 2012 when hundreds of troops defected from the Congolese armed forces, is an incarnation of a group of Congolese Tutsi set up to fight the Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said the unmanned aerial vehicles will for the first time give the United Nations state-of-the-art 21st century technology.
Nesirky said it will allow U.N. peacekeepers, especially in eastern Congo, "to monitor the movements of armed groups and protect the civilian population more efficiently."
If the trial in Congo is successful, U.N. officials have said that drones are likely to be used in other peacekeeping missions, possibly including Ivory Coast and South Sudan.
According to its website, Selex ES has a workforce of about 17,700, total revenues in excess of €3.5 billion. In addition to major operations in Italy and the U.K., it also operates in the United States, Germany, Turkey, Romania, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India.