The U.N. Security Council is preparing to go the Democratic Republic of Congo on a lightning mission later this week to discuss the future of 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers with President Joseph Kabila, who would like to see them leave.
President Kabila would like to see the peacekeepers, who have been in Congo for a decade following the country's bloody civil war, begin withdrawing before his country marks its 50th anniversary of independence from Belgium later this year. Mr. Kabila would like the entire force out by late August 2011.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended the Council withdraw up to 2,000 peacekeepers by the end of this June - but only from the calmer western part of the country.
The U.N.'s top official in Congo, Alan Doss, who briefed the council ahead of their Friday departure for Kinshasa, said such a drawdown in the west would be operationally feasible for the mission, known by its French acronym, MONUC. Following that he proposed reviews of the security situation every six months, starting in September, in areas where MONUC is deployed.
"These reviews would focus on progress on military operations against armed groups; deployment of security forces to assume MONUC protection task; and establishment of state authority in areas freed of armed groups," he said.
Doss said those would be the conditions for planning further drawdowns of U.N. forces.
In the unstable east, peacekeepers are still supporting the national army in its efforts to eradicate Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR and the rebel Lords Resistance Army. Doss expressed continuing concerns about the security situation in that part of the country. "The humanitarian situation in the Kivus and parts of Orientale province remains of deep concern with a large number of internally displaced persons, high levels of sexual violence against women and attacks on humanitarian workers," he said.
Such instability was evident Tuesday, as the International Committee of the Red Cross said eight of its workers had been abducted by militia members in South Kivu province.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud, who is organizing the 2-day visit to the DRC, told reporters the council is going "with an open mind" to dialogue with the Congolese. "We all know that the U.N. force won't remain indefinitely in Congo. Our goal is, of course, to allow the Congolese authorities to exert their authority, their sovereignty, on all their territory as quickly as possible," he said.
But he cautioned that the situation remains "extremely fragile" and that withdrawal must be done "right, rather than quickly."
The Council was originally planning to visit Uganda and Rwanda as well on this trip, but canceled those plans, citing the council's heavy work load this month. That agenda includes a possible new round of sanctions aimed at Iran for its nuclear program.