Congo's president urges peacekeepers to leave

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Congo's president called for the UN's 20,000-strong peacekeeping force to leave before September 2011 so the country can "fly with its own wings," but the UN secretary-general isn't signing off on a date, according to a report.

Ban Ki-moon said he wants to ensure that military operations against rebels in eastern Congo are successfully completed, that well trained and equipped Congolese army units can take over the UN force's security role, and that the government extends its authority in areas freed from armed groups before the largest UNpeacekeeping operation in the world departs.

The secretary-general did recommend in the report to the Security Council that the withdrawal start immediately with up to 2,000 troops leaving peaceful areas of the central African nation by June 30, the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence.

President Joseph Kabila initially wanted the UN force, known by its French acronym Monuc, out of Congo before the independence celebrations. But following a visit to Kinshasa last month by UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy, where Mr Kabila stressed "that it was now time to allow the country 'to fly with its own wings'," the government "decided to be more flexible and shift that date to August 30, 2011", the report said.

Congo was engulfed in civil wars from 1996-2002, drawing in half a dozen nations and leading to deployment of the UN force in 1999 to support implementation of a cease-fire that was repeatedly broken.

Following a 2002 agreement that ended much of the fighting, Monuc supported the reunification of the country and the country's first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, which Mr Kabila won.

Mr Kabila's government, however, since struggled to assert its control in the east and had difficulty building effective institutions and integrating former fighters into a national army.

Mr Ban took note of Mr Kabila's desire for all UN troops to be gone by September 2011, but didn't endorse it.

An assessment team he sent to Congo recommended withdrawing the UN force over a period of three years if the security situation continued to improve and the government accomplished a series of "critical tasks", according to the report.

The team concluded that "a continued significant presence of the Monuc force was essential in the Kivus and Orientale provinces" in the volatile east, but not in the other eight provinces where the government could independently maintain law and order and protect civilians, the report said.

The secretary-general said the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence provided an opportunity for the government and people "to turn the page on a period of the country's history that has too often been disfigured by conflict and violence."

He said he was convinced that a strategy could be devised to drawdown Monuc "in a manner that both advances the realisation of the aspirations and vision of the government and avoids the risk of reversals that could trigger renewed instability".

Mr Ban recommended that the Security Council extend Monuc's deployment for 12 months and authorise the immediate withdrawal of up to 2,000 troops by June 30, but he did not recommend a final withdrawal date.

Instead, he recommended that the Security Council endorse an "understanding" in which the government and the UN would jointly review progress toward meeting "urgent tasks".

Accomplishing the tasks would accelerate withdrawal and failing to meet them would enable the mission and the government "to manage the potential triggers of renewed instability," the report said.

The tasks include ending military operations against rebels in eastern Congo, where Mr Ban said the risk of renewed instability "should not be underestimated", and deploying trained Congolese army units, police, administrators and legal institutions throughout the country, the report said.

As an example of the hurdles ahead, the report said "the national army remains an amalgamation of unvetted, untrained former militia groups" and former army personnel with poor loyalty and discipline and a weak military justice system unable to prevent human rights violations.

If the Security Council approves the process, Mr Ban said, the government and Monuc would have to agree on specific benchmarks to measure progress.