The United Nations could begin withdrawing troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, as early as June, the peacekeeping chief said Friday.
"It was a clear request from the government of Kinshasa and from the president that the first draw-down should start around June 2010 at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Congo," U.N. peacekeeping head Alain Le Roy told reporters after he briefed the Security Council.
The peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, has been in the former Belgian colony since 1999 to help the government of Congo as it struggles to re-establish state control over the vast central African nation.
A 1998-2003 war and the ensuing humanitarian disaster have killed an estimated 5.4 million people in the country.
Le Roy said the withdrawals would only involve peacekeepers in the relatively peaceful western part of the country. He said withdrawals from the unstable east would begin in June 1011 at the earliest.
"In the east it will take much more time before we can think of withdrawing military forces from there," he said. "It will take much more time before the critical tasks ... are implemented."
The U.N. estimates that some 1,500 people die every day in eastern Congo, many due to disease and dirty water.
The world body's peacekeeping mandates are controlled by the 15-member Security Council, which is charged with protecting peace and security worldwide. The next MONUC mandate expires at end of May.
Diplomats and U.N. officials have made clear the withdrawal of MONUC's nearly 20,000 troops and police from the mineral-rich country, called Zaire until 1997, would have to be done slowly.
The long-term plan is to have a gradual shift away from peacekeepers to civilian experts focusing on reconstruction, security sector reform and fighting corruption.