Democratic Republic of Congo military personnel (FARDC) patrol against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) rebels near Beni in North-Kivu. File photo: Kenny Katombe

Kinshasa - The UN said Tuesday it has deployed around 100 Egyptian special forces to the restive Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a surge in violence has caused what it called a humanitarian “catastrophe”.

A source at the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the company had been sent to “reinforce” some 450 troops from Benin already in the area, in the south-east of the country.

“They have begun patrolling,” the source said.

The country's wealthiest province, Katanga is about the size of Spain and is believed to hold around a third of the world's cobalt and 10 percent of its copper reserves.

A drive by MONUSCO to stamp out rebel violence in the restive northeastern province of North Kivu late last year left a security vacuum in Katanga, resulting in a surge of attacks by local militias.

Katanga's capital Lubumbashi is the country's second largest city and the province has been plagued by secessionist violence since DR Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960.

Over the past year, rebel groups fighting for Katanga's independence Äknown as Mai Mai Bakata Katanga Ä have sown terror in a northern area known as the “triangle of death” stretching thousands of kilometres between the towns of Pweto, Manono and Mitwaba.

“It's a humanitarian catastrophe,” MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler said in January, reporting that rebel violence had destroyed 600 homes and displaced 400 000 in the three preceding months.

“I feel an element of guilt when I think of Katanga because we have concentrated our military activity on the Kivus but it is important not to neglect Katanga,” he said.

With over 20 000 uniformed members, MONUSCO is one of the United Nations' biggest peacekeeping forces in the world and includes a specialised intervention brigade tasked with neutralising the dozens of armed groups in the east of the country.