UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations announced Wednesday that the Republic of Congo is withdrawing its peacekeeping troops from conflict-torn Central African Republic following allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.
A statement from the U.N. Secretariat said a review of the country's deployment pointed to "systemic problems in command and control" of the peacekeepers, compounded by issues related to their preparedness and discipline and the maintenance of their equipment.
The U.N. said the outcome of the review was shared with Republic of Congo authorities who decided to withdraw their military personnel, numbering nearly 650, according to the U.N. peacekeeping department.
It said "failures identified with the military contingent are not reflected in the performance of the police contingent" from the Republic of Congo, which will remain in Central African Republic. The U.N. says about 140 police from Republic of Congo are in the country.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, which arose from a regional force in September 2014, has been marred by allegations of sexual misconduct by troops from a wide array of countries.
Contingents from Republic of Congo and the much larger neighboring nation of Congo already have been repatriated after it was found they "had committed sexual violence while deployed in Bambari between 14 September and 14 December 2015," according to a U.N. report on abuses in Central African Republic that was released last month.
That report identified hundreds of human rights violations in Central African Republic since 2003 that may amount to war crimes, including massacres, gang rapes and entire villages burned to the ground.
Ahead of Wednesday's announcement, AIDS-Free World's Code Blue Campaign to end sexual abuse and exploitation said it was "relieved" by the impending withdrawal of what it called "a notorious battalion of Republic of Congo/Congo-Brazzaville peacekeepers."
But the advocacy group in an open letter Tuesday asked why it had taken so long, in light of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' appointment of a high-level task force in January charged with coming up with "game-changing solutions" to the U.N.'s long-running sexual abuse "scandal."
Code Blue said it was still waiting for a response to a June 6 letter it sent to Guterres asking what happened to at least seven victims, including six children, and at least 11 troops from the battalion that appear to be listed on a U.N. website that documents allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation.
It also noted that the results of 10 of 15 investigations are marked "pending," another is marked "incomplete" and no final action has been taken by the Republic of Congo for two of three cases marked "substantiated."
"We can't help but deduce a shocking delay in the administration of justice," AIDS-Free World's co-directors Paula Donovan and Stephen Lewis said.
The Republic of Congo military contingent has been part of a 12,870-strong force in Central African Republic.
The U.N. said it is working with the Republic of Congo and the peacekeeping force in Central African Republic on how to conduct "a speedy withdrawal that will have the least impact on the mission's operational requirements and ability to implement its mandate."
It was not immediately clear how the U.N. will fill the gap, which occurs at a time when the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic has been overstretched trying to protect civilians in an ever-moving conflict. The most recent violence has hit parts of the country that previously were spared the kind of intercommunal fighting seen at the height of the crisis in early 2014.
Efforts to broker a peace agreement appear to have failed within hours of a deal being signed Monday in Rome. Thirteen of the country's 14 armed groups had agreed to an immediate ceasefire, but heavy fighting broke out in the town of Bria on Tuesday and authorities there believe at least 100 already are dead though conditions have been too insecure for Red Cross teams to collect bodies in the streets.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal