U.N. mulls exit strategy for Congo troops: diplomats

By Louis Charbonneau

The United Nations
is quietly preparing an exit strategy for
its troops in the Democratic Republic
of Congo, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping
mission in the world, diplomats
and officials said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity,
diplomats and U.N. officials said
President Joseph Kabila was putting
pressure on the U.N. and Security Council
ahead of the country's 50th anniversary
next year to come up with a plan
for ending the peacekeeping mission,
known as MONUC.

MONUC has been in the former Belgian
colony since 1999 to help the government
of Congo as it struggles to reestablish
state control over the vast central African
nation following a 1998-2003 war
and humanitarian disaster which have
killed an estimated 5.4 million people.

"It's partly a question of dignity,"
one Western diplomat told Reuters.

"Kabila's eager to show that
his government's reliance on U.N.
peacekeeping is decreasing.

It's understandable. No leader wants
to give the impression that he needs
U.N. peacekeepers to stay in power."

Kabila, who won the country's first
democratic election in four decades 2006,
is expected to run for re-election in 2011.

In response to the pressure from
Kinshasa, U.N. officials and diplomats
said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's next
report on Congo would recommend
the Security Council extend
MONUC's mandate for six months,
instead of a full year.

One official said this would give
MONUC time to "develop with
the DRC government proposals
for the future direction of MONUC,
including an exit strategy
with benchmarks detailing
critical tasks to be met
before the mission's drawdown."

Kinshasa's U.N. ambassador
Atoki Ileka told Reuters his government
would like to discuss an exit strategy
and favored the idea of setting
specific "benchmarks" that would
allow a phased withdrawal of U.N. troops
and peacekeepers from his country,
called Zaire until 1997.

The diplomats and U.N. officials
made clear the withdrawal of
MONUC's nearly 20,000 troops and
police from the mineral-rich country
would have to be done slowly.


"I would be very surprised if
a withdrawal took less than two years,"
a senior U.N. official told Reuters.

Another U.N. official said
an additional 3,000 peacekeepers
approved by the Security Council
last year have not all arrived.

"We should get all our troops in
the DRC there before we start
pulling them out," another
U.N. official said.

For this reason, the renewed mandate
for MONUC the Security Council plans
to approve next month will keep
planned troops at unchanged levels,
diplomats said.

"The situation in the DRC remains fragile
and the peace process in the east
at great risk of unraveling," a U.N. official said.

"A hasty disengagement could jeopardize
the 10-year investment of the international
community in the DRC."

But there might be changes
in the new mandate. One idea being
considered is to shift MONUC's headquarters
from Kinshasa to the east,
where the mission is
most active, officials said.

The long-term plan is to have
a gradual shift away from
peacekeepers to civilian experts
focusing on reconstruction,
security sector reform
and fighting corruption.

Also needed are education and
training for the Congolese army,
which U.N. humanitarian affairs chief
John Holmes said has been guilty
of "horrific crimes" against civilians.

"Everybody wants the mission
to draw down at the right moment
and for the spending on peacekeeping
to be directed at peace-building,"
an envoy told Reuters.

"But we have to discuss how that
shift will be managed responsibly.
One obviously can't go for some
dramatic reduction in peacekeeping."

The U.N. estimates that some
1,500 people die every day in the east,
many due to disease and dirty water.

"Every six months it's an Asian tsunami,"
the outgoing deputy head of MONUC,
Ross Mountain, said last week.

Mountain made clear he thought it
was too early to start pulling out
peacekeepers. "I think their presence
is extremely important
for protecting civilians," he said.

But Holmes pointed to improvements
in some parts of the country. While there
are still around 2 million internal refugees
in camps in eastern Congo, he said,
hundreds of thousands have been
able to return home this year.

The key reason for the improvement,
Holmes said, was Congo's improved ties
with neighboring Rwanda,
the arrest of Tutsi rebel leader
Laurent Nkunda and the virtual
disbanding of his rebel militia.

Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in
Kinshasa; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

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