UN peacekeepers have begun withdrawing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country's foreign minister announced on Saturday, 25 years after their mission began. The operation is due to be completed by the end of the year.
Speaking alongside leaders of the UN's Monusco peacekeeping force, Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula told a press conference they would work for an "exemplary" withdrawal.
Monusco today fields 13,500 soldiers and 2,000 police, most of them from countries in Asia and Africa, across the three eastern provinces of Ituri and South and North Kivu.
The pullout is due to take place in three phases, starting with the departure of peacekeepers from South Kivu by the end of April.
Lutundula said the plan was not yet at the stage of "seeing soldiers board planes".
But "the withdrawal has commenced in the sense that we are at work", he said.
Despite ongoing violence in the east of DRC, the government has been calling for months for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, who were first deployed in the country in 1999.
The UN Security Council voted in December to comply with Kinshasa's demand for a gradual pullout.
The DRC has also refused to renew the mandate of a regional East African force, which began withdrawing last month.
The country's leaders consider the international forces to be ineffective in protecting civilians from the armed groups and militias that have plagued the eastern DRC for three decades.
Other African countries have levelled similar accusations – notably Mali, which also demanded the emergency departure of the UN mission there.
The first of 14 UN bases in South Kivu is expected to close by 15 February at the latest and be handed over to Congolese security forces, according to the head of Monusco, Bintou Keita.
The first base to be handed over is at Kamanyola on the border with Burundi.
A final date for the full withdrawal has not been set, but Lutundula said he expected the process to be completed by 31 December.
"We are fighting for everything to be done by the end of this year," he said.
The departure did not mean "the end of the war", the foreign minister said, referring to Kinshasa's accusation that neighbouring Rwanda is supporting the M23 rebel group in North Kivu.