A top United Nations official on Wednesday said, during a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that peacekeepers should withdraw from the conflict-torn country "as quickly as possible" yet responsibly.
Addressing reporters in the capital Kinshasa, UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix, also warned that the Congolese state had to step up its own response to armed groups to avoid creating a "security void that would be fatal".
The UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, known as Monusco, is one of the largest and costliest in the world, with an annual budget of around $1 billion. It has been present in the country since 1999.
The force has a current strength of about 16,000 uniformed personnel, mainly deployed in Congo's east — a mineral-rich region that militias have plagued for three decades.
But the UN comes in for sharp criticism in the DRC, where many people perceive the peacekeepers as failing to prevent violence. Dozens of people were killed during anti-UN protests last year.
At the news conference in Kinshasa, Lacroix acknowledged "frustration" with the UN, with the levels of insecurity remaining alarming, but added that false rumours are also often spread about peacekeepers.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced people in eastern DRC receive protection "almost exclusively" from UN troops, he added, noting that those people often urge the UN to stay.
Nevertheless, Lacroix said that the organization — responding to the demand of Congolese authorities — wants to withdraw "as quickly as possible".
But he stressed that the transition needs to be carried out in a "gradual and responsible" way, and that there needs to be a "rise in strength in the services of the state".
The official also explained that MONUSCO's mandate limits the help it can provide to other regional forces in eastern Congo.
An East African Community regional force is currently present in the region. Southern African states are also due to deploy troops.
Armed groups have plagued much of eastern DRC for three decades, a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and 2000s.
One such group, the M23, has captured swathes of territory in North Kivu province since taking up arms again in late 2021 after years of dormancy.
The rebel campaign has displaced over one million people, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).