By Patrick Worsnip
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 14 (Reuters) - The Security Council authorized on Wednesday a 5,000-strong U.N. military force to take over peacekeeping duties in turbulent eastern Chad from European Union troops who have been there for the past year.
Rebel activity and banditry are rife in the region, which hosts about half a million refugees, including 290,000 from Chad’s neighbor, Darfur, in western Sudan, where a rebellion has been under way for five years.
Chad’s government agreed to temporary deployment early last year of an EU force, known as EUFOR, and has agreed that a U.N. force can take its place.
A Security Council resolution said the new force, whose mandate will initially run for a year, would contain a maximum of 5,200 military personnel and 300 police.
It will take over from the 3,300-strong EUFOR on March 15 and, like the EU force, operate in part of the neighboring Central African Republic, which has also been affected by spillover from the Darfur conflict.
The resolution empowers the U.N. force, known as MINURCAT, to "take all necessary measures" to protect endangered civilians, especially refugees, to facilitate aid deliveries and to protect U.N. staff and equipment.
EUFOR’s deployment last year was delayed by an unsuccessful assault by rebels on Chad’s capital, N’djamena, in the west of the country in February.
The force, which had pledged neutrality in Chad’s internal conflicts, was further tested in June by a hit-and-run offensive in the east by the rebels, who are seeking to overthrow President Idriss Deby.
MINURCAT is supposed to back up fellow peacekeepers who are gradually deploying in Darfur. Its ultimate goal is to create conditions for refugees to return home.
But there has been no sign of the Darfur conflict abating and U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes reported last month that recruitment by Darfur rebel groups in Chad’s camps and increasing banditry in the area were threatening aid supplies.
Holmes said EUFOR had been unable to tackle the problem, remarks that echoed comments in September by international charity Oxfam.
But Chad’s U.N. Ambassador Ahmad Allam-mi told the council last month his government believed there had been overall improvement in the situation compared with a year ago, thanks to national efforts and the deployment of EUFOR.