updated 12/22/2008 3:42:59 PM ET 2008-12-22T20:42:59

The Security Council on Monday condemned the recent military offensive by rebels in eastern Congo that displaced over 250,000 people, and ordered the U.N. peacekeeping force to give top priority to protecting civilians in that volatile border region.

In a resolution adopted unanimously, the council revised the mandate of the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping force to focus its action in the coming year on the crisis in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu. The force is authorized to have 22,000 soldiers and police.

The conflict in eastern Congo is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo's 1996-2002 civil wars, which drew neighboring countries in a rush to plunder Congo's mineral wealth.

War crimes investigation opened
In the latest outbreak of violence, rebels led by Laurent Nkunda launched an offensive in late August, gaining control of a large swath of North Kivu and driving more than 250,000 people from their homes. Many Congolese soldiers fled the advancing rebels, and U.N. peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians from being killed or raped.

In a report last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the U.N. has opened investigations into whether war crimes have been committed in eastern Congo. He said there is alarming evidence of targeted killings and possibly civilian massacres.

The Security Council condemned in Monday's resolution the "repeated offensive military actions in the past months" by Nkunda's CNDP rebels, which also involved a Mai Mai faction known as Pareco. It said the attacks caused "massive displacement of populations in North Kivu as well as cross-border movements of refugees."

The council underlined "that a major obstacle to lasting peace in the Kivus is the presence and activities of illegal armed groups on Congolese territory," including the Rwandan Hutu FDLR militia, which incorporates some combatants who participated in the Rwandan genocide.

The Security Council extended the mandate of the U.N. force, known as MONUC, until Dec. 31, 2009, specifying for the first time the priorities for its 19,815 military personnel, 760 military observers, and 1,441 police.

Priority should be protecting civilians
The U.N. force's first priority should be to work closely with Congo's government to "ensure the protection of civilians, including humanitarian personnel, under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular violence emanating from any of the parties engaged in the conflict," it said.

It should also contribute to improving security conditions so humanitarian aid can be provided and assist in the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced people, the council said.

MONUC is authorized to "deter any attempt at the use of force" by foreign or Congolese armed groups, especially in the volatile east, "to threaten" peace efforts.

The council said the U.N. force can do this "including by using cordon and search tactics and undertaking all necessary operations to prevent attacks on civilians and disrupt the military capability of illegal armed groups that continue to use violence in that area."

While the council stressed the need to work in close cooperation with the Congolese government, it emphasized that operations led by the Congolese army against illegal foreign and Congolese armed groups should be planned jointly with MONUC. This should be done in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian and refugee laws, "and should include appropriate measures to protect civilians," the council said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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