UN sanctions six Congo rebels as fighting in east escalates

FILE PHOTO: Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Robert Wood

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday sanctioned six people from five armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as violent clashes escalate in the region between the Congolese army and Rwandan-backed M23 Tutsi-led rebels.

The fighting, in a war that has lasted decades, has increased the risk of an all-out conflict between Congo and Rwanda that could suck in neighbors and regional forces including South Africa, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi.

"The United States firmly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the DRC and lasting peace for all Congolese people. Rwanda and the DRC must walk back from the brink of war," Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Robert Wood told a meeting of the 15-member Security Council on Tuesday.

The Security Council's DRC sanctions committee imposed an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on two leaders with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one leader from the Twirwaneho armed group and one from the National People's Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNPSC) rebels.

Also added to the U.N. list were the military spokesperson for the Rwandan-backed M23 Tutsi-led rebels and a leader with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), founded by Hutus who fled Rwanda after taking part in the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"These individuals are responsible for numerous abuses," Wood said of the six sanctioned individuals.

A U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, has been deployed in Congo for more than 13 years after taking over from an earlier U.N. operation in 2010 to help quell insecurity in the east of the Central African country.

The U.N. Security Council approved the end of the mission in December following a request by Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in September to fast-track the withdrawal of the peacekeepers.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sandra Maler)