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UNITED NATIONS, Dec 8 (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has recommended that the mandate of peacekeepers in Congo be extended by just six months instead of the usual year as the force considers a drawdown in the still turbulent country.
President Joseph Kabila is pressing the world body to start winding down MONUC, the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping force, by mid-2010 when Congo marks the 50th anniversary of independence from Belgium. Diplomats say he does not want his country to appear to be still propped up by foreign troops.
Despite reports of continued violence and rights abuses in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the diplomats say Kabila's words have struck a chord with some in the Security Council who would like to cut back the costly MONUC operation.
In a report to the council made public on Tuesday, Ban proposed it extend MONUC's mandate just until June 30, 2010, to allow U.N. talks with Kinshasa on critical tasks to perform so a withdrawal would not trigger "a relapse into instability."
The council will vote on Dec. 21. Ban said that in April he would present the council with recommendations on reconfiguring MONUC so that in June the 15-nation body could draw up a new mandate on its future, including a military drawdown.
The secretary-general admitted the situation in eastern Congo "remained fragile" and that a U.N.-backed Congo army offensive against the Rwandan FDLR rebel group there had taken "a heavy toll on civilians" as a result of reprisals.
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.
The U.N. says says there are still around 2 million internal refugees in camps in eastern Congo, although hundreds of thousands have been able to return home this year.
But Ban said that except for the two eastern Kivu provinces and pockets of other territory, Congo "is now largely a country at peace and is ready ... to embark on the next critical reconstruction and rebuilding phase."
U.N. diplomats point to a rapprochement early this year between Congo and neighboring Rwanda that they say has changed the political dynamics in the region and led to the disbanding of a dangerous rebel militia in eastern Congo, the CNDP.
The talk of winding down MONUC comes, ironically, as the force is still building up to its maximum strength.
Over a year after the Security Council authorized the addition of 3,000 troops to the 17,000 already in Congo, only two-thirds of them have so far arrived, making the current total about 19,000. Ban's proposal rules out any reductions before mid-2010.
Ban said that at a meeting in Kinshasa on Nov. 24 with regional and U.N. diplomats, Kabila had asked the world body "to submit a proposal, including a calendar, for a progressive drawdown, preferably commencing by 30 June 2010."
That date is Congo's independence anniversary, as well as being the expiry date of MONUC's next mandate, if Ban's proposal is approved by the Security Council.
Kabila, who won Congo's first democratic election in four decades in 2006, is expected to run for re-election in 2011.
Diplomats and U.N. officials say the withdrawal of MONUC from Congo will have to be done slowly, and is unlikely to take less than two years.
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. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)