The top political officer at the United Nations has resigned.  The departure of Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast is the latest in a series of changes in the world body's top leadership.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement Wednesday saying his political affairs chief Kieran Prendergast is retiring from U.N. service. Mr. Annan appointed the former British diplomat to head the political department shortly after he became secretary-general in 1997.

With Mr. Annan nearing the end of his second five-year term in office, spokesman Stephane Dujarric suggested a new political director would come from within the current staff.

?Since his own mandate will only run for a further 18 months after Kieran's departure, the secretary general's priority is to find someone already thoroughly familiar with the work of the United Nations who can ensure full continuity in the leadership of the department,? he said.

Several U.N. diplomats had warm praise for Mr. Prendergast on hearing of his departure. U.S. mission spokesman Richard Grinnell had no comment, other than to say he was sure Mr. Prendergast's replacement would be well qualified.

As the top U.N. political official, Mr. Prendergast clashed several times with the United States, most notably over Iraq. He has strongly opposed the return of U.N. international staff to Iraq in large numbers since the attack on the world body's Baghdad headquarters in August 2003.

U.S. officials later opposed his bid to become the secretary-general's special envoy to the Middle East.

As his resignation was announced, Mr. Prendergast was briefing the Security Council on Middle East matters. He expressed concern at steadily increasing levels of violence between Israel and Palestinians.

"We are concerned by reports of a slow but steady increase in violent incidents, compounding a deterioration in trust and confidence between the two sides," he noted.

Mr. Prendergast was also quoted Wednesday as saying he would probably visit Cyprus before the end of the month. That word follows a meeting he had this week with a Cypriot government envoy on the possible resumption of U.N.-sponsored talks to reunify the island.

Mr. Prendergast's departure is the latest change in the embattled secretary-general's inner circle as he seeks to overcome a series of scandals that have marred his second term.

Last December, Mr. Annan's long time chief of staff and close confidant Iqbal Riza stepped down amid allegations of mismanagement in the U.N.-run Iraq oil for food program. It was later revealed Mr. Riza had shredded oil-for-food related files.

Mr. Annan appointed public relations expert Mark Malloch Brown to take over as Chief of Staff. Since his arrival, several more senior staffers have left or are leaving.
Among them are Undersecretary General for Management Catherine Bertini, her assistant, the U.N. Controller Jean Pierre Halbwachs, the secretary-general's chief spokesman Fred Eckhard, and another of the secretary-general's close aides, Assistant Secretary General Catherine Lindenmayer.

In addition, several agency heads have departed, including U.N. Children's Fund Director Carol Bellamy, U.N. Refugee Agency chief Ruud Lubbers, and the head of the office of internal oversight Dileep Nair.

A U.N. official said Wednesday one reason for Mr. Prendergast's departure is that there is a disproportionately large number of Britons in the world body's top ranks.

In addition to Mr. Malloch Brown, the secretary-general recently appointed Scotland Yard security expert David Venness to head U.N. worldwide security operations. Another Briton, Edward Mortimer, serves as Mr. Annan's director of communications.

An American, U.S. State Department official Christopher Burnham was named this week to take over as Undersecretary-General for Management.