More than a decade and billions of dollars after U.N. peacekeepers deployed to Congo during a civil war, President Joseph Kabila wants them out.
The 20,000 peacekeepers tasked with guarding a country the size of Western Europe have been unable to protect civilians from a variety of rebel groups who kidnap children, rape women and decapitate enemies. Some of the peacekeepers themselves are even accused of sexual abuse, gold trading and corruption.
The United Nations isn't signing off on a date for leaving but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended they start with up to 2,000 troops leaving peaceful areas by June 30, which marks the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence from Belgium. Officials had planned to start in Equateur — a relatively peaceful corner of the country until a conflict erupted six months ago. Last month, more than 100 insurgents there overwhelmed a handful of U.N. peacekeepers guarding an airport.
Congolese officials say it was the latest evidence of the U.N. mission's failure to protect civilians.
Information Minister Lambert Mende accused the U.N. of pretending "to help a people while trampling its dignity" and suggested it is trying to seize power in mineral-rich Congo. "Don't do anything for us. We will do it ourselves," Mende said.
But U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes warned that violence may spiral out of control if the peacekeepers all leave.
"You could find yourself in a much more dangerous situation," Holmes told The Associated Press during a recent trip to Congo.
Even human rights groups and others who have criticized the U.N. force say it's far too soon for the peacekeepers to leave a country in which rebel groups are waging brutal campaigns in several regions.
At least 8,300 rapes were committed in eastern Congo alone last year, the U.N. said. And just two months ago, a Ugandan rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army attacked a Congolese village, killing as many as 100 people and slicing off the lips and ears of many others.
"For us, any imminent departure of the blue helmets would be premature," said Raphael Wakenge of the Congolese Initiative for Justice and Peace, who coordinated an appeal from 30 civil society and rights groups for the peacekeepers to stay longer. "In numerous regions of our country, the Congolese government and its security forces simply don't yet have the capacity to guarantee people's security."
Congo's sprawling borders reach nine other African countries and conflict here can spark instability in its neighbors. Fears remain that fighting in Congo could invite invasion and escalate into an international war. Last year, Rwandan troops joined Congolese soldiers to fight Rwandan Hutus who perpetrated that country's 1994 genocide and continue to terrorize people in eastern Congo. Ugandan troops are here trying to end the 20-year rebellion of the Lord's Resistance Army, now holed up in forests in northeastern Congo.
Senegalese Gen. Babacar Gaye, the commander of the peacekeepers, says critics often forget the state Congo was in when the blue-helmeted forces arrived in 1999 to observe a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Rebels had ousted longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, then turned on each other in back-to-back civil wars that became an international scramble for the country's minerals and drew in soldiers from a half-dozen African nations. The $1.35 billion-a-year U.N. mission helped hold Congo's first democratic elections in 40 years in 2006, though results were disputed and critics said the process favored Kabila, the incumbent and a former warlord.
Some critics allege Kabila wants the peacekeepers to leave to prevent international oversight of presidential elections in September 2011. The government has said the U.N. peacekeepers should be gone by September 2011 and has asked the U.N. to produce a schedule for withdrawal. The mission's mandate expires in less than two weeks and cannot continue without the government's consent. The U.N. Security Council plans to visit Congo at the end of this week and that Ban plans to come around the start of June.
Over the years, the U.N. mandate has grown more complex as rebel groups splintered and new ones emerged, including ones created by deserting Congolese army officers. Gaye said there are so many militias that "it is near-impossible to list them all."
Peacekeepers are authorized to use force to protect civilians but also must support Congolese armed forces who often prey on those same civilians, drawing the ire of rights groups who charge the U.N. of feeding soldiers who have killed civilians, gang-raped girls and cut the heads off young men in the latest push to oust the Rwandan rebels.
Enraged residents of eastern Congo threw rocks at U.N. compounds in the city of Goma after peacekeepers failed to protect them at the height of one rebellion in November 2008. Around the same time, 100 peacekeepers barricaded themselves into their base on the outskirts of the northeast town of Kiwanja, keeping the gates locked against civilians begging for refuge while rebels massacred at least 150 civilians just a mile away.
In Congo's northeast, communities besieged by the Ugandan rebels have formed self-defense groups because they cannot rely on the peacekeepers against fighters who hack victims to death with machetes and force children to kill other children.
The peacekeepers say they just do not have enough troops to protect everyone.
"The U.N. peacekeepers are being put in an appalling situation," Human Rights Watch said in December.
In the past, some Congolese troops fought alongside the Rwandan rebels, causing rights groups to charge the U.N. was indirectly supporting perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. In November, the U.N. suspended support to one army unit with the worst alleged offenders but Gaye later said there would be no more suspensions, arguing they were counterproductive.
Peacekeepers also have been criticized for failing to arrest those wanted by the International Criminal Court, including former rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda, now a general in Congo's army.
Holmes insisted the peacekeepers cannot end any of the conflicts, saying political negotiations must resolve root causes of the violence.
He said the U.N.'s massive humanitarian efforts would continue even if the military mission, which provides protection and logistics for aid agencies, ends.
But he warned that if the peacekeepers go, it would be much more difficult to deliver food and medical help to the more than 2 million Congolese who are refugees in their own country. Already at least a third do not get help because of perilous security.
Congo's government and its ill-equipped and often unpaid armed forces have shown they are incapable of replacing the peacekeepers, known by their French acronym as MONUC.
"I cannot gainsay the politicians but, speaking as a soldier, we need MONUC's help," Lt. Col. Ndango Ngoy said.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson contributed to this report from Johannesburg.