UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council voted on Wednesday to renew the mandate of peacekeeping forces in Congo by five months instead of the usual year amid plans to overhaul their role in the war-torn country.
The extension, diplomats say, will give the United Nations time to prepare a plan to reconfigure the mandate of the force, known as MONUC, to focus more on training the army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and protecting civilians.
A resolution unanimously approved by the 15-nation council extended the deployment of approximately 20,000 uniformed personnel, the biggest U.N. force in the world, until May 2010. But diplomats say it will be prolonged again after that.
They say the Security Council is under pressure from Congo President Joseph Kabila to come up with an exit strategy for MONUC ahead of the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence from its former colonial master Belgium on June 30, 2010.
But the resolution said much needed to be done before a drawdown of MONUC could be considered “without triggering a relapse into instability.” U.N. experts and human rights groups have alleged serious abuses by the Congolese army as well as rebel groups in eastern Congo.
More than 5 million people are thought to have died in mineral-rich Congo, many from hunger and disease, as a result of a 1998-2003 civil war and its aftermath. It was that war that led to MONUC being sent there 10 years ago.
But despite continued reports of murders and rapes by armed groups funded by illegal mineral exports, U.N. officials and diplomats say the regional situation has improved this year since ties improved between Congo and neighboring Rwanda.
The resolution asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to submit a “strategic review of the situation” by April 1 to enable the council to decide the future of MONUC.
It also said abuses perpetrated by the 150,000-strong army, including sexual violence, must be thoroughly investigated.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the resolution “underscores the council’s firm commitment that protection of civilians be the principal and primary focus of MONUC.”
It also conditioned future MONUC support to Congo’s army on “prior and effective joint planning” and assurances that its operations accorded with international humanitarian law, Rice told reporters.
Human rights groups charge that the mission has lent too much support to units of the Congolese army known to have committed abuses. That led the world body last month to suspend support for a brigade accused of killing more than 60 civilians.
“The secretary-general should ensure that MONUC’s new mandate is implemented in a way that ensures peacekeepers do not find themselves aiding those who are committing war crimes,” Georgette Gagnon of Human Rights Watch said.
In a defensive address to the council, Kinshasa’s U.N. ambassador, Atoki Ileka, gave the resolution a lukewarm reception, saying it “still reeks of the bitter criticism against the (Congolese army).”
Council diplomats said that while Congo has made progress, MONUC is necessary to maintain peace and to build up the army.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said “there is a balance here to be struck” between punishing abuses in the army and MONUC’s need to assist reform.
Editing by Bill Trott