France warns against cuts to UN force in Congo before voting

UNITED NATIONS (AP) " France's U.N. ambassador warned Tuesday against cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo when the country is heading toward elections and facing an upsurge in violence and deteriorating security.

Francois Delattre told reporters that the Security Council "shouldn't play with fire when it comes to such an important issue."

The United States, the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping, is seeking cuts and reviewing all 16 missions. The Congo mission, with about 22,400 people including nearly 17,000 troops and over 1,350 police, is the biggest and costliest with a budget of $1.2 billion.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said that during a closed council discussion there was some support for cutting numbers but also concern that with elections coming by the end of the year this isn't the time to reduce the mission's ability to protect civilians.

The mission's mandate expires at the end of the month and Rycroft, the current council president, said members will be negotiating what to do in the coming week.

Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Petr Iliichev told reporters that the size of the mission should be reduced and its troops "should be more agile, more flexible, more mobile" and include more specialized soldiers and additional police.

But "we should be very cautious that we don't jeopardize all the progress that we achieved" because of the financial concerns of some unnamed council members, he said.

In his recent report to the council, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked for 320 additional police to help "keep the political process on track." He said they would be deployed in Lubumbashi and Kananga, "where there is a high risk of urban violence in the upcoming electoral period." He also asked for 36 armored personnel carriers for the new and existing police units.

Russia's Iliichev said Guterres' proposal is acceptable to Moscow and "it's acceptable to the Congolese."

Guterres said the recent political agreement reached by the ruling party and opposition to hold presidential elections this year is in peril as the sides engage in "brinksmanship," and he expressed concern about spreading violence.

The vast Central African nation has seen widespread anger over President Joseph Kabila's stay in power after his mandate ended in December. Kabila is barred from running under the election agreement, but his government has delayed voting, saying preparations are not complete.

The Security Council, in a statement after Tuesday's meeting, expressed concern at the slow progress in implementing the Dec. 31 agreement calling for peaceful, free and fair elections by December 2017. Members urged all parties "to work constructively" to fulfil the agreement.

France's Delattre said Congo "is at a crossroads" and the U.N. needs to help the country get through elections.

The U.N. envoy to Congo, Maman Sidikou, told the council Tuesday that violence and threats to civilians are no longer concentrated in the volatile east.

"Community-based violence and inter-ethnic clashes" have spread to Tanganyika, the three Kasai provinces, Lomami and Kongo Central, he said, and violence has also increased in the east with the reappearance of former M23 rebel elements.

Sidikou said the resurgence of violence in some areas "has been exacerbated by the uncertain political situation, as well as the manipulation of grievances for political ends."

"The risk of electoral violence also remains high, mainly in urban areas," he said. "This is likely to rise further, the longer the implementation of the Dec. 31 agreement is stalled, prolonging the current political uncertainty."

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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