Congo president calls for UN to begin withdrawal

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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo's president urged the United Nations on Monday to start withdrawing from the enormous country where a peacekeeping mission has been based for 15 years.

During a lengthy speech before parliament, President Joseph Kabila asserted that peace is progressively returning to the country racked by back-to-back civil wars. A myriad of rebel groups remain active in the country's east, launching attacks on civilians.

Kabila said the threat posed by various rebel groups "does not justify keeping a contingent of 20,000 men on our soil."

"The time has come to start reducing the number of blue helmets in our territory," he said, referring to the U.N. peacekeepers known for their signature protective gear.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate is up for renewal again at the end of March 2015.

Critics question whether the Congolese military can adequately protect civilians especially in the conflict-torn east.

More than 250 people have been killed in attacks around the town of Beni in the past two months, according to a local civil society group.

The U.N. peacekeepers first arrived in 1999 to observe a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign troops. U.N. force's strengthened mandate to fight rebels is credited with helping the Congolese army to oust a rebel group known as M23 from the country's embattled east a little over a year ago.

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