UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - The United Nations wants to use drones for the first time to monitor fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where Rwanda has been accused of aiding rebels, officials said Friday.

Peacekeeping chiefs have been in contact with the governments of DR Congo and of Rwanda about the sensitive move, which could set a precedent that would worry other United Nations members, diplomats said.

UN leaders are looking for ways to strengthen their peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, where guerrillas from the M23 rebel movement have taken over much of mineral-rich North Kivu province.

UN experts say Rwanda and Uganda have sent troops and arms across the border. Both strongly deny the allegations. The UN “is considering a range of ways to strengthen the capabilities of MONUSCO to protect civilians from the threat of armed groups in the vast area of eastern DR Congo,” UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer told AFP.

“Unarmed aerial vehicles, drones for monitoring the movements of armed groups, are one tool we are considering,” he said. “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.”

“Ultimately, to introduce these, we would need the support of member states to equip the mission,” Dwyer said. While the drones would not halt the current M23 advance, the UN is also considering bringing in extra troops and redeploying its current force. UN leader Ban Ki-moon is to recommend options to the UN Security Council soon.

MONUSCO currently has about 17,500 troops but could go up to about 19,500 under its Security Council mandate. “The UN has approached a number of countries, including the United States and France, about providing drones which could clearly play a valuable role monitoring the frontier,” said one UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Clearly there will be political considerations though,” the diplomat added. “This is controversial, not all countries agree with this,” said Olivier Nduhungirehe, first counselor for Rwanda’s UN mission.

Thousands of civilians poured out of the town of Sake in the eastern DR Congo on Friday in the face of a rebel advance that has raised fears of wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region.

An AFP photographer saw at least one body in the centre of the town, which feel to the rebels Wednesday, while the local head of a relief agency reported numerous casualties.

“There are bodies lining the road” leading south from Sake, Thierry Goffeau, the head of the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told AFP, without providing specific figures.

The M23 rebels earlier in the week captured Goma, a regional capital in the mineral-rich Kivu region, where the two wars that shook the country beginning in 1996 started.

The rebels’ lightning advance has displaced tens of thousands of people and has raised warnings of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in the underdeveloped area. On Friday, thousands of residents fled Sake on foot heading east toward Goma some 30 kilometres (19 miles) away, where tens of thousands of people are estimated to already be sheltering in camps. A UN source said that the army and an allied local militia had managed to stop the rebel advance some 10 kilometres south of Sake, but this information could not be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile the European Union added its voice to the international chorus demanding that the rebels stop their advance, “starting with the immediate stop of the M23 offensive and its retreat from Goma.”

The rebels have refused to withdraw from Goma unless President Laurent Kabila agrees to peace talks. The United Nations and other humanitarian groups have reported killings, abductions, looting and extortion of civilians in the face of their advance.