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UN agrees to gradual pullout of UN peacekeeping force from Chad by end of year

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Chad's government succeeded Tuesday in forcing a 3,300-strong U.N. peacekeeping force operating in Chad and the Central African Republic to pull out by the end of this year.

And with the U.N. Security Council's unanimous vote to disband the peacekeeping force known as MINURCAT, another troubled African nation concerned with looming elections and 50-year independence celebrations has dealt a setback to U.N. peacekeeping.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, too, has told the United Nations to pack up its peacekeeping operations ahead of independence celebrations and elections scheduled for next year.

The vote by the U.N.'s most powerful arm all but confirms the view advanced by Chadian President Idriss Deby, who has called the force "a failure" — and in February insisted his country did not want to renew the peacekeeping force's mandate — because it hadn't improved conditions along the border.

"We trust that the government of Chad will do its utmost to fulfill its responsibilities and use all available capabilities for the protection of the population in eastern Chad," said Austrian Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting, the only diplomat to speak after the council's show of hands.

Though it agreed to the resolution, he said, Austria "would have preferred a more gradual approach in the drawdown" of forces and a continued U.N. role in protecting civilians.

Also Tuesday, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said on the third day of his visit to Chad that 1.4 million people suffer from hunger because of drought and crop failure in the western part of the nation. He said 102,000 of those are severely malnourished children.

The council adopted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's plan for a gradual withdrawal of the 2 1/2-year-old peacekeeping force near the border with Sudan's volatile Darfur region.

The Security Council authorized cutting the force by July 15 down to 2,200 soldiers — 1,900 in Chad, 300 in the Central African Republic — and 25 liaison officers. They are to be accompanied by no more than 300 police.

Final withdrawal of the remaining troops is to begin on October 15. Nearly all uniformed and civilian U.N. personnel are to be gone by December 31. Only "those required for the mission's liquidation" may remain past then, the resolution says.

Earlier this year, the council tried to encourage Deby to negotiate with the U.N. peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, who visited Chad in the last week of February. The mission's mandate had been due to expire March 15.

Deby's government finally agreed to a phased withdrawal in keeping with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's recommendation.

U.N. officials privately acknowledged the development was a setback. Some expressed disappointment the council's diplomats did not fight harder in the face of Chadian demands for peacekeepers to leave.

The council's decision to withdraw from Chad, a country twice the size of France, illustrates the limitations the U.N. faces when an unstable nation declines help.

The first military personnel, Ban said, are to begin pulling out Thursday.

Human Rights Watch says the withdrawal will expose civilians to more violence and abuses, since Chadian forces failed to provide security in the past and the situation remains volatile.

"It's an unhelpful development, both for civilians on the ground in Chad, and for peacekeepers generally," said Peggy Hicks, the group's global advocacy director, in an interview Tuesday. "The standard for when their mission should end should be when the tasks set for it are completed, and we're concerend this decision is not being made on this basis."

Ban sought to put a positive spin on it Tuesday, saying he welcomed the council's action as it "will allow the civilian component of the mission to work with the government to consolidate gains achieved so far." Ban also noted that Chad "assumes full responsibility for the protection of civilians" as U.N. forces begin withdrawing later this week.

Civil war broke out in Chad just five years after the nation won independence Aug. 11, 1960. Last year, the European Union's peacekeeping mission transferred its authority to the U.N. mission.

But looking forward, Deby's government has its 50-year celebration in August and parliamentary elections scheduled for November.