Congo calls for full UN troop pull-out by next year

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The Democratic Republic of Congo wants the United Nations to pull its troops – including many South Africans out of that country next year, a move which human rights groups say will spell disaster for civilians caught up in conflict there.

Nearly 22 000 peacekeepers with the United Nations’ MONUC force are deployed throughout the country, maintaining a UN presence launched in 1999 when a six-year war drew in neighbouring countries and claimed an estimated five million lives. “Senior officials of the UN have been informed of the government’s wish to see the total withdrawal of MONUC from DRC during 2011,” Information Minister Lambert Mende told reporters.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said on a recent visit to Congo that a new MONUC mandate due in June would include plans for a withdrawal, but said no date had been agreed. “We are waiting for the Secretary General to give his report to the Security Council to see what final decision will be taken,” a MONUC spokesman said on Thursday.

Conflict still rages in the east of the country, where UN troops are backing government operations to oust Rwandan Hutu rebels, the FDLR. Human rights groups say massacres, rape, looting and other attacks on civilians continue in the east, and that armed ex-rebel groups control artisanal mining of lucrative tin and tantalum, used in telephones and camera lenses.

Lobby group Global Witness said yesterday a UN pull-out should be conditional on demilitarisation of these mines. “The security and human rights situation has remained dire over the past year,” said Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of rights group Amnesty International’s Africa programme.
“Withdrawing or reducing the peacekeeping force could have disastrous consequences,” she said in a warning issued last week as the debate intensified.

About 4000 UN troops are stationed outside the two eastern provinces of north and south Kuvu, where operation Amani Leo (“Peace Today” in Swahili) is taking place. Mende said the government also wanted MONUC to shift all its peacekeepers to the hot zone in the east this year.

UN battalions are also stationed in the north of Congo, the scene of fighting after a local fishing dispute flared up, displacing tens of thousands of people, as well as in Kinshasa and the northeast, where Ugandan rebels have bases. MONUC’s touted withdrawal next year also raises questions over the conduct of forthcoming presidential elections, due in 2011, prompting concerns over whether the state can afford the costs and logistics of a country-wide poll without UN assistance.

Donor-assisted elections in 2006 cost about $500 million, about 20 percent of the cash-strapped nation’s budget. “Some disgruntled people, in a paroxysm of suspicion, have seen this 2011 deadline as a ploy to get rid of MONUC and rig the 2011 elections,” said Mende. “The closeness of elections can never exempt a people from taking charge of its destiny,” he added.



MONUC says it has not been asked to assist with national elections, but has been asked by government to assist with local elections, for which the electoral commission has not yet set a date, although they are due before the presidential elections.