- Rights group: 1,400 civilians killed in Jan.-Sept. 2009 (Adds quotes, background, details)
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 16 (Reuters) - A U.N.-backed military operation in eastern Congo in which government soldiers are accused of massacring hundreds of civilians will end this month, the top U.N. official in Congo said on Wednesday.
"Kimia II will be completed on Dec. 31," U.N. special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alan Doss, told the Security Council during a meeting on the U.N. peacekeeping mission there, known as MONUC.
The United Nations has backed Congolese government forces in a nine-month operation called Kimia II against Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo's east. The United Nations says it bolstered stability by supporting the operation but aid agencies had argued against U.N. support due to heavy civilian casualties.
Doss said the operation's main goal -- to disperse the rebels and weaken their ability to exploit Congo's mineral wealth -- "has been largely achieved although we do recognize that there have been very serious humanitarian consequences."
But the fight against the rebels, some of whom are suspected of participating in neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide, is not over, he said.
"The FDLR (Rwandan Hutu rebels) remains a potential threat and they will seek to return to their strongholds and punish the population for collaboration with governmental forces, if they are allowed to do so," he warned the 15-nation council.
Although the criticized operation will be ending, Doss made clear that MONUC had no plans to end its cooperation with the Congolese army. He praised the army's newly approved strategy, under which it would focus on holding ground recovered from the rebels and preventing attacks on civilians.
The army will also hunt down rebel units in areas where they may have regrouped, he added.
Rights activists say Congo's ill-disciplined army, cobbled together from former rebels, militia groups and government loyalists, is one of the country's worst human rights abusers. The United Nations has documented wide-ranging abuses committed by the army since the offensive began in March.
Doss acknowledged to the council that with the integration of demobilized rebels into Congo's FARDC army, "the problem of discipline in the FARDC has worsened."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch advocacy group issued a 183-page report earlier this week that detailed what it said was the "deliberate killing" of over 1,400 civilians between January and September 2009 in two Congolese army operations.
Congo's army denies the scale of the alleged abuses and says it is trying to improve its system of accountability.
Doss also urged countries to crack down on foreign support for rebels. He welcomed Germany's arrest last month of two Rwandan Hutu rebel leaders suspected of war crimes in Congo.
A U.N. group of experts reported recently that an extensive rebel network abroad has been used to fund, organize and direct rebel activities in eastern Congo. It also accused members of the Congolese army of colluding with the Rwandan rebels.
"We deplore (this) but we should recognize that the (Congolese army) has dislodged the FDLR from its former strongholds and has not wavered in its determination to deal with the FDLR," Doss said.
Diplomats say the Security Council is under pressure from Congolese President Joseph Kabila to come up with an exit strategy for MONUC, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world, ahead of the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence from its former colonial master Belgium on June 30, 2010.
They said that the council planned to renew the mandate of MONUC in the coming days for another five months. That will give the U.N. time to prepare a plan to reconfigure MONUC to focus more on training Congo's army than it has in the past.
(Editing by Eric Beech)
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