UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N.’s biggest and costliest peacekeeping force will remain in Congo as it heads toward a long-delayed presidential election, the Security Council decided Tuesday as Congolese expressed concern about the peacekeepers’ priorities.
Council members stressed the upcoming election as they approved a year-long renewal of the mission, which recently endured the deadliest single assault on a U.N. peacekeeping force in almost a quarter-century. A rebel attack late last year killed 15 troops.
“Without appropriate levels of preparation for the elections, it is the stability of the country and the safety and well-being of civilians that is at stake,” said French Ambassador Francois Delattre, whose country takes the lead on Congo issues at the council.
But Congo’s envoy said the peacekeeping force should focus less on elections and more on combatting various armed groups vying for control of the big Central African nation’s mineral riches.
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“The best way to protect civilians is to fight against armed groups,” Ambassador Ignace Gata Mavita said, adding that the Congolese have “mixed feelings” about the mission because of its “non-satisfactory results” in neutralizing the groups.
Congo has gone through decades of ethnic clashes, rebellions and violence carried out by armed groups and militias trying to control gold and other resources. The U.N. has had a peacekeeping force in there since 1999.
In recent years, tensions also have simmered over longtime President Joseph Kabila’s stay in office. His mandate ended in 2016, but elections have repeatedly been postponed. They are now set for Dec. 23.
The opposition has accused Kabila of trying to cling to power. Some protests have turned deadly.
Meanwhile, security in Congo has deteriorated, and humanitarian needs have doubled over the last year, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council last week. He said 13 million people need aid, over 2 million children are suffering from severe, acute malnutrition, a cholera outbreak is the worst in 15 years, and over 700,000 Congolese have fled to nearby countries even as their country hosts more than 540,000 refugees from its neighbors.
The Security Council last week reiterated its call for holding transparent, credible elections and addressing armed groups’ actions.
The $1.1 billion-a-year peacekeeping mission is known as MONUSCO. It counts over 16,000 troops and 1,300 police, as well as 4,100 civilian staffers and volunteers.
The council last year cut 500 troops at the urging of the United States, where President Donald Trump’s administration honed in on peacekeeping missions as it looked to cut foreign aid and overhaul U.N. operations.
Troop levels are staying the same for this coming year, under the renewal resolution approved Tuesday.
The U.N. has said MONUSCO is making security and communications improvements after 15 Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed Dec. 7 in an hours-long attack on a base in eastern Congo. Forty-three other peacekeepers were wounded.
U.N. investigators found training gaps, leadership hitches and other problems, including a lack of a plan to reinforce peacekeepers or pull them out during an attack.
The probe blamed the December assault and two others on the Allied Democratic Forces rebel group. It began as an anti-government force in Uganda in the 1990s.