UN extends peacekeeper mandate but wants plan for troop drawdown

The UN Security Council has granted a six-month extension to the peacekeeping force in Liberia, snubbing a request from Secretary General Kofi Annan for a one-year renewal, and has called for a schedule for troop reductions to be mapped out by early next year.

The war-scarred West African country, struggling to rebuild after 14 years of civil war, is home to the world's most expensive UN peacekeeping operation, known as UNMIL.

Around 15,000 UN peacekeepers and 1,100 international police officers are currently stationed in Liberia, helping provide security as the country prepares for crunch elections on 11 October, the first polls since the war ended in August 2003.

On Monday the UN Security Council unanimously voted to extend UNMIL's mandate until 31 March 2006, rejecting recommendations made by Annan in a report earlier this month.

Annan had asked for year-long extension, saying that although Liberia was stable, many challenges remained. These included rehabilitating former combatants, restoring state authority to the heavily-forested country, strengthening the judicial system and restructuring the security sector.

The Security Council also asked the UN chief to provide "recommendations on a drawdown plan for UNMIL, including specific benchmarks and a tentative schedule, in his March 2006 report."

Annan said in this month's report that he envisaged UNMIL troop strength would remain at the present level following the October polls and the installation of the new elected government in January, until a comprehensive security assessment could be carried out.

One of the top contenders in Liberia's presidential elections, former international soccer star George Weah, told the BBC on Tuesday that UN peacekeepers should make a long-term commitment to stay until at least 2010 to "help put our books in order."

Ordinary Liberians, who lived through bitter and bloody battles before UN troops deployed, also openly voice their reluctance to see the blue hats leave any time soon.

"I think it's expedient that the international community remains for 10,15, 20 years, however long it takes until Liberia can once again reach a level of maturity," said Moses Gayflor, an economics student at the University of Liberia, in the capital, Monrovia.

Diplomats and UN officials admit that if the October elections go smoothly, there will be the temptation to start reining in UNMIL operations, whose 2006 budget stands at $760 million.

"The UN security force needs to stay in place. That said the perception brought about by a successful election cannot be avoided," one UN official said. "There will always be the assumption that once there's a successful election the UN can begin to draw down.