Thursday, May 17, 2007

U.N. Extends Congo Peacekeeping Mission

Associated Press Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo until the end of the year while calling for a timetable to gradually withdraw the nearly 18,000-member force.

The resolution extending the force's mandate deplored outbreaks of violence earlier this year and urged the government and opposition to remain committed to reconciliation and democracy. It demanded that all militias and armed groups in volatile eastern Congo lay down their arms.

The mineral-rich central African nation has been wracked by years of war and decades of dictatorship. Last year, the country held its first free elections in more than 40 years, but the government led by President Joseph Kabila remains fragile.

The council stressed the Congolese government's primary responsibility for ensuring security and protecting civilians, and urged that state to extend its authority throughout the country.

It authorized the U.N. force to help the government protect civilians, report on the movement of armed groups, deter any attempt by armed groups to threaten the political process and train law enforcement authorities.

The U.N. mission was also authorized to support efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and promote national reconciliation and human rights.

The resolution authorized the force "to use all necessary means within the limits of its capacity" to carry out its mandate, extended until Dec. 31.

Last month, the council expressed "grave concern" about the loss of lives, especially civilians, in March 22-25 clashes between Congolese security forces and guards of Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord who was runner-up in the presidential election. Dozens were killed in the bloodshed.

The resolution adopted Tuesday "exhorts the democratically elected authorities to respect the space and role conferred on the opposition parties by the constitution in order to ensure their effective participation in the national political debate."

Congo's U.N. Ambassador Atoki Ileka said the government had asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to come up with a plan for the gradual withdrawal of the peacekeeping mission, which is the U.N.'s largest.

He said that in the short term, the mission should remain at full strength, but in the long run "it's good to have an exit strategy."

The resolution asks Ban to submit a report by Nov. 15 with benchmarks and a timetable for the gradual withdrawal of the force.

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