* Region home to array of militia groups
* Fighters seek control of minerals and timber
* Peace-keepers struggle to disarm rebels
* U.N. pledges to step up efforts (Adds U.N. Special Representative comment)
By Ed Cropley
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec 4 (Reuters) - As the battered pickup lurched down the road from Mount Nyiragongo, Lieutenant Bongani Mndebele took a closer look at its passengers, six men in faded camouflage fatigues with AK-47s over their shoulders.
“Government forces - I think,” the South African peace-keeper said. “It’s often hard to tell round here.”
In the hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, along the border with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, Mndebele’s uncertainty can be forgiven.
For years, the region, including the slopes of Nyiragongo, Africa’s most active volcano, has been home to a patchwork of rebel militias who have killed thousands and displaced millions in their quest for control of timber, gold, tin and tantalum.
Many date back to the 1998-2003 Congolese civil war, fuelled by Rwandan intervention, in which millions died, either in the conflict or of hunger and disease.
However, the biggest militia still at large, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by the French acronym FDLR, is led by ethnic Hutus who fled to Congo from Rwanda after helping instigate the 1994 genocide.
As a member of the United Nations-mandated Force Intervention Brigade - itself a unit of the U.N.’s 20,000-strong MONUSCO peace keeping operation, its biggest in the world - it is Mndebele’s job to identify the rebels and disarm them, if need be by force. But it is easier said than done.
“These armed groups, they wear the same uniform as the government forces. That makes it difficult to distinguish between them,” said Colonel Bayanda Mkula, second-in-command of the FIB in Goma, eastern Congo’s regional capital.
The United Nations on Friday however pledged to step up its efforts.
The most notable achievement of the FIB, a joint South African, Tanzanian and Malawian ‘peace enforcement’ operation, was its contribution along with Congolese forces to the 2013 destruction of M23, the largest and best-armed of the groups and widely believed to be a proxy of Rwanda.
Although it had heavy weapons, including two tanks, M23 was no match for South African state-of-the-art Rooivalk attack helicopters based in Goma.
However, the problem for South Africa, which sees its 1,000-strong FIB deployment as a key part of its regional foreign policy, is that the Rooivalk is less potent against militiamen who are guerrillas by night but villagers by day, hiding their rifles and grenade launchers to blend in with the civilian population.
With few South Africans speaking Swahili or French, the region’s two main languages, they are heavily reliant on the Congolese military for intelligence.
Kinshasa has repeatedly stated that it is committed to eradicating the rebels, yet suspicions remain that its forces are dragging their feet, either because of an anti-Rwanda agenda or because local and national politicians have a stake in the millions of dollars extorted from illegal mining and logging.
With elections expected in a year’s time, analysts say the situation is only likely to get worse.
“The future is dark,” said Fidel Bafilemba, a Goma-based researcher for the Enough Project, an advocacy group.
“If there was a genuine commitment to wiping out these armed groups, none of them could resist. The FIB has its helicopter gunships and heavy weapons but will do nothing against the armed groups unless there is political will.”
Analysts also suspect that South Africa and Tanzania may be reluctant to hit the FDLR and its 1,500 fighters because it would serve as a gift to hardline Rwandan president Paul Kagame, with whom diplomatic relations are less than warm.
Complicating the situation further, analysts say the groups are splintering into smaller and smaller factions, clouding the intelligence picture and increasing the risks of civilian casualties from heavy-duty U.N. military intervention.
According to a report last month by the Congo Research Project, a regional monitor, there are now at least 69 armed rebel militias in the provinces of North and South Kivu, three times as many as 2008.
Most probably only have a few hundred men under arms, but the proliferation is testament to the failure to offer rebels any alternative to a career of plunder and pillage.
“Despite two rounds of a stabilization programme, the government and its foreign partners have been unable to create a virtuous cycle of economic development in the rural Kivus that could entice local leaders to invest in stability rather than conflict,” the Congo Research Project said.
“At the same time, the government has been slow to hold its army officers involved in racketeering and the support of armed groups accountable.”
Only after egregious acts of violence, such as the killing this week of dozens of people by Ugandan Islamists in another group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), has the FIB managed to act decisively.
Two Rooivalk helicopters sent in returned to Goma having fired all their ammunition and rockets and inflicted casualties on the ADF, although South African officials did not provide details.
Yet even then, there were questions over the extent of Congolese approval for the mission. A Congolese spokesman said the national army played no role in the operation and intelligence-sharing went little beyond informal conversation.
“There is still a need to deal with ADF, FDLR and smaller armed groups but it’s not South Africa that decides unilaterally on operations,” said Major-General Barney Hlatshwayo, the South African military’s director of operations.
Speaking in the town of Beni near the scene of the ADF attacks, in which a Malawian peace-keeper was also killed, U.N. Special Representative Maman Sambo Sidikou promised that international forces would be cranking up the pressure.
“In terms of operations, we can’t continue (to) be as timid as we are,” he was quoted as saying on MONUSCO’s Twitter feed. (Editing by James Macharia and Giles Elgood)