U.N. Considers Drones Over War-Torn Congo

International organization would set new precedent with the controversial monitoring UAVs.

Armed Predator drone

The military is currently working on upgrading drones so that they can fly in "hostile environments" like the Middle East and Africa, says Lt. Gen. Larry James.

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The United Nations says it wants to use drones as a part of peacekeeping efforts in embattled central Africa at a time when the aerial vehicles have become synonymous in some countries with spying and indiscriminate attacks.

Unmanned, unarmed aerial vehicles could assist the MONUSCO mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.N. peacekeepers tell AFP. "M23" guerillas have seized control of the mineral-rich eastern portions of the country.

[READ: M23 Rebels Vow to Take Congo, As Troops Defect]

"Unarmed aerial vehicles, drones for monitoring the movements of armed groups, are one tool we are considering," U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer told AFP. "Of course, we would do this carefully, in full cooperation with the government of the DR Congo, and trialing their most effective uses for information gathering to help implement our mandate to protect civilians."

This would be the first time the U.N. employed drones, which the international organization previously considered prohibitively expensive. New developments have brought the price down, though some regional leaders believe it still isn't worth the cost.

[U.N. REPORT: Rwanda Commanding Rebels in Congo]

"This is controversial, not all countries agree with this," AFP reports Rwandan counselor to the U.N. mission Olivier Nduhungirehe as saying.

Western countries have already deployed drones to other warring regions of Africa. France reportedly sent unmanned surveillance vehicles over Mali in October to monitor what it says is increasingly threatening activity in the al-Qaeda stronghold. Seven French citizens have been taken hostage in the West African country since September 2010, including one on Thursday, according to an AllAfrica.com report.

[RELATED: U.N. Launches Aerial Attack in East Congo]

The U.N. says drones over the Congo would only be used for surveillance, but many regional countries are worried that this new precedent could open the door to other uses.

"In Congo, the drones could spot any troops and weapons coming across the border which is good," a Security Council diplomat tells AFP. "But there are a lot of countries with secrets to hide. If the drones are used in other missions, who will guard the information and guarantee that it does not get passed on."

[REPORT: Uganda Leader's Brother Backing Rebels]

The U.N. says neighboring Rwanda and Uganda have already sent troops across the border, though both countries deny these claims.

A coalition of roughly 17,500 troops from nearly 50 countries have participated in U.N.-backed peacekeeping efforts. Officials say they must not replace the Congolese military, which has all but collapsed under clashes with militant groups.

Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com