The UN Security Council voted Tuesday to accede to a demand from Democratic Republic of Congo and launch a gradual withdrawal of UN peacekeepers starting this month, a year earlier than originally planned.The resolution, which renews the mandate of the peacekeeping mission in DRC for a further year, includes plans for the departure of peacekeepers from South Kivu province by the end of April.The drawdown comes despite United Nations concern about violence in the eastern part of the country.Ravaged by conflict, the vast and impoverished DR Congo will host high-risk presidential and parliamentary elections on Wednesday, a vote that coincides with the expiry of the annual mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Monusco.Despite a volatile domestic situation, the Congolese government has for months been calling for an accelerated withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, from the end of 2023 rather than the end of 2024. It considers the UN force to be ineffective in protecting civilians from the armed groups and militias that have plagued the eastern DRC for three decades.The accusation is similar to that made by other African countries, notably Mali, which has demanded the emergency departure of the UN Minusma mission.In recent months, several Council members, notably the United States, have expressed doubts as to whether DRC forces are ready to replace Monusco to ensure the security of the population.However, as UN missions cannot operate without the authorization of host countries, the DRC forced the Security Council’s hand — though its messaging has been less forceful than Mali’s.”Members of this council will be watching very closely as the DRC government looks to assume full responsibility for the protection of its civilians as Monusco draws down,” said United States deputy ambassador to the UN Robert Wood.The Council decided to “initiate the gradual, responsible and sustainable withdrawal” of the mission, in line with a withdrawal plan agreed in November between Kinshasa and Monusco. The first phase includes the withdrawal of peacekeepers from South Kivu province by the end of April 2024, beginning “before the end of 2023,” according to the resolution seen by AFP ahead of the vote.The DRC’s ambassador to the UN Zenon Ngay Mukongo spoke only briefly to thank the council.- Reduced presence -From May 2024, Monusco will be present only in North Kivu and Ituri. And from July 1, its strength will be reduced by some 2,350 personnel from a maximum authorized strength of around 13,800 military and police personnel.Further withdrawal will be determined on the basis of an evaluation report on the first phase, which the Council expects by the end of June 2024.A UN peacekeeping force has been present in the country since 1999. For several years, the Security Council has been cautiously disengaging, setting broad parameters for the transfer of responsibilities to Congolese forces, with an aim to begin withdrawing by 2024.While the head of Monusco, Bintou Keita, recently expressed concern about an increased risk of “direct military confrontation” between the DRC and Rwanda, the resolution also called for “calm and dialogue” between the two neighbors.Without naming anyone, it also condemned “support by any external party” for the armed groups of the M23 (March 23 Movement) and the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), and calls for the withdrawal of these external parties from Congolese territory.In their last report, published in June, experts mandated by the Security Council claimed to have “new evidence of direct intervention by Rwandan defense forces” in the DRC, notably in support of the M23 and FDLR.