Chad forces UN peacekeepers out

Bowing to demands by the government of Chad, the Security Council on Tuesday instructed UN peacekeeping troops to withdraw from the poor, violence-ridden country by the end of the year.

A council resolution extended the mandate of the force, which had been due to expire on Wednesday, just until Dec. 31 - a compromise with Chad's President Idriss Deby, who had originally asked for it to start leaving in March.

Under the resolution, the force known as MINURCAT will cut back from its current strength of around 3300 troops to 1900 in Chad by July 15, plus 300 in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), and begin a final withdrawal from Oct. 15.

MINURCAT has only been in Chad since 2007 and its military component only since last year. Its main tasks have been to protect civilians and secure supplies of food and other aid to refugees in the Northeast of the drought-hit country, a region known for lawlessness and banditry.

UN officials say there are about 500,000 refugees in the area, half of them from the turbulent Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan and the rest from Chad itself and the CAR. They and private aid agencies have been concerned that pulling MINURCAT out too soon will leave the refugees vulnerable.

But in asking for the force to leave, Deby complained that it had not fully deployed and had failed to protect civilians or build promised infrastructure projects.

Three UN visits to Chad succeeded in persuading Deby to allow a gradual withdrawal of the force - which the world body says needs government consent to stay - but not to reverse his decision to require its departure.

In a statement on the unanimous council resolution, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Chadian authorities would assume responsibility for protecting civilians from Thursday.

The resolution approved by all 15 council members said Chad had promised to improve security and facilitate aid delivery in the East. A joint Chad/UN working group would assess the government's performance on a monthly basis.

Residual MINURCAT tasks would include training Chadian security forces and - until Oct. 15 - providing security for UN personnel. In one concession, the force will be authorized "to respond to imminent threats of violence to civilians in its immediate vicinity," the resolution said.

The only speaker at Tuesday's council session, Austrian Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting, said his country "would have preferred a more gradual approach in the drawdown of MINURCAT as well as the continuation of a protection of civilians mandate for the mission."

"Austria believes that the possibility of a further international engagement in eastern Chad should not be excluded if deemed necessary for humanitarian reasons," he said.

The prospect of MINURCAT leaving has worried the UN World Food Program, which said this month Chad would have to provide "a mobile and efficient force" to protect its convoys.

On Tuesday, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said relief efforts for 2 million people facing food shortages in Chad were suffering because donors were concentrating aid on neighbouring Niger.

Chad, a former French colony, is near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, a composite benchmark that includes literacy rates, life expectancy and economic wealth.

Reuters