May 14, 2010 / 6:43 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 1-U.N. delegation in DR Congo for peacekeeper talks

* U.N. delegation arrives in Congo for talks on peacekeepers

* Decision needed on new mandate

(Adds detail from first meeting)

By Thomas Hubert

KINSHASA, May 14 (Reuters) - A United Nations’ Security Council delegation arrived in Kinshasa on Friday to persuade Congo that a gradual withdrawal of 20,500 peacekeepers would be better than the swift exit the government wants.

With independence celebrations this year and elections in 2011, Democratic Republic of Congo’s government wants the U.N. contingent out by 2011.

But top U.N. officials, diplomats and aid groups fear a hasty pull-out will worsen security problems in the troubled mining giant, which held U.N.-backed elections in 2006 but is struggling to contain a plethora of rebellions.

Diplomats from the 15-nation Security Council met Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito on Friday, and will meet President Joseph Kabila on Saturday.

The mandate for the U.N. force, which has been in Congo for a decade, expires at the end of May.

Seraphin Ngwej, Kabila’s diplomatic advisor, told Reuters last week that 2011 was “a reasonable deadline” for withdrawal.

But France’s ambassador in Congo said earlier the United Nations would propose to pull 2,000 soldiers out by June 30, the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium.

If approved by the Security Council and the Congolese, this would be followed by “a progressive disengagement based on the evolution of the security risk facing the country”.

A source close to Friday’s meeting said the government had agreed to assess the security situation jointly with the united Nations and was open to receive support during the election but officials maintained demands for a complete pullout by 2011.

U.N. peacekeepers provide logistical support and, sometimes, firepower, for Congo’s weak national army, which is struggling to battle a collection of local and foreign rebels groups.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by violence, which has spared the copper and cobalt mining province of Katanga, but continues to plague other eastern provinces, where tin and gold are mined and there are hopes for oil.

“Security risks due to the civil conflict in the eastern part of the country loom large in investors’ minds as far as mining assets are concerned,” Standard Bank said this month.

“The government’s request for the U.N. to pull out its peacekeepers by the end of 2011 is likely to heighten these security concerns. Given (Congo’s) precarious security situation, (the) government’s request seems premature, and thus we doubt that U.N. forces will withdraw within this time frame.”

Although peacekeepers are frequently accused of not doing enough to protect civilians, many in Congo fear rebel and government forces will commit further abuses in their absence.

"I suggest they stay for another two years, because they should be here for the elections," said father Albert, a Catholic priest in Mwenga, a town at the heart of fighting in South Kivu province. (Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Reed Stevenson) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com)

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