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By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations is quietly preparing an exit strategy for its troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, diplomats and officials said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats and U.N. officials said President Joseph Kabila was putting pressure on the U.N. and Security Council ahead of the country's 50th anniversary next year to come up with a plan for ending the peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC.
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 following a 1998-2003 war and humanitarian disaster which have killed an estimated 5.4 million people.
"It's partly a question of dignity," one Western diplomat told Reuters. "Kabila's eager to show that his government's reliance on U.N. peacekeeping is decreasing. It's understandable. No leader wants to give the impression that he needs U.N. peacekeepers to stay in power."
Kabila, who won the country's first democratic election in four decades 2006, is expected to run for re-election in 2011.
In response to the pressure from Kinshasa, U.N. officials and diplomats said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's next report on Congo would recommend the Security Council extend MONUC's mandate for six months, instead of a full year.
One official said this would give MONUC time to "develop with the DRC government proposals for the future direction of MONUC, including an exit strategy with benchmarks detailing critical tasks to be met before the mission's drawdown."
Kinshasa's U.N. ambassador Atoki Ileka told Reuters his government would like to discuss an exit strategy and favoured the idea of setting specific "benchmarks" that would allow a phased withdrawal of U.N. troops and peacekeepers from his country, called Zaire until 1997.
The diplomats and U.N. officials made clear the withdrawal of MONUC's nearly 20,000 troops and police from the mineral-rich country would have to be done slowly.
NO HASTY EXIT
"I would be very surprised if a withdrawal took less than two years," a senior U.N. official told Reuters. Another U.N. official said an additional 3,000 peacekeepers approved by the Security Council last year have not all arrived.
"We should get all our troops in the DRC there before we start pulling them out," another U.N. official said.
For this reason, the renewed mandate for MONUC the Security Council plans to approve next month will keep planned troops at unchanged levels, diplomats said.
"The situation in the DRC remains fragile and the peace process in the east at great risk of unravelling," a U.N. official said. "A hasty disengagement could jeopardize the 10-year investment of the international community in the DRC."
But there might be changes in the new mandate. One idea being considered is to shift MONUC's headquarters from Kinshasa to the east, where the mission is most active, officials said.
The long-term plan is to have a gradual shift away from peacekeepers to civilian experts focussing on reconstruction, security sector reform and fighting corruption.
Also needed are education and training for the Congolese army, which U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said has been guilty of "horrific crimes" against civilians.
"Everybody wants the mission to draw down at the right moment and for the spending on peacekeeping to be directed at peace-building," an envoy told Reuters. "But we have to discuss how that shift will be managed responsibly. One obviously can't go for some dramatic reduction in peacekeeping."
The U.N. estimates that some 1,500 people die every day in the east, many due to disease and dirty water.
"Every six months it's an Asian tsunami," the outgoing deputy head of MONUC, Ross Mountain, said last week.
Mountain made clear he thought it was too early to start pulling out peacekeepers. "I think their presence is extremely important for protecting civilians," he said.
But Holmes pointed to improvements in some parts of the country. While there are still around 2 million internal refugees in camps in eastern Congo, he said, hundreds of thousands have been able to return home this year.
The key reason for the improvement, Holmes said, was Congo's improved ties with neighbouring Rwanda, the arrest of Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and the virtual disbanding of his rebel militia.
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa; Editing by Todd Eastham)