By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday renewed the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers in Democratic Republic of the Congo, making clear they would stay put until Kinshasa shows it can govern its turbulent east.
The extension of the United Nations' MONUSCO peacekeeping force's mandate until June 30, 2012 comes days after the U.N. refugee agency said the number of reported victims of a mass rape by gunmen in eastern Congo earlier this month rose by about 70 to as many as 170.
The government of President Joseph Kabila has repeatedly suggested that MONUSCO should begin preparations for the force's withdrawal, a position that Security Council diplomats say is premature given Kinshasa's inability to halt violence in North and South Kivu in the east.
In his latest report on Congo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said some 1.738 million people remain displaced in the vast country, which is roughly the size of western Europe, including some 1.25 million in North and South Kivu.
"The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo remains fragile," Ban said.
The French-drafted resolution on the mandate renewal, adopted unanimously by the 15-nation council, made clear that it was not time to begin withdrawing MONUSCO.
"Future reconfigurations of MONUSCO should be determined on the basis of the evolution of the situation on the ground and on the achievement of ... (specific) objectives," it said.
Those objectives include "reducing to a minimum the threat from armed groups and restoring stability in sensitive areas" as well as improving Kinshasa's ability to provide protection and consolidate its authority throughout the country.
The council said it was "greatly concerned by the humanitarian situation and the persistent high levels of violence and human rights abuses and violations against civilians."
It also condemned "targeted attacks against civilians, widespread sexual and gender-based violence, recruitment and use of children by parties to the conflict, forced displacement and extrajudicial executions."
The U.N. special representative on sexual violence last year called eastern Congo the rape capital of the world, a label the government has strongly rejected.
Several armed groups continue to operate in mineral-rich eastern Congo since a 1998-2003 war that killed 5 million people, and the government has struggled to counter them despite support from nearly 20,000 blue-helmeted peacekeepers, the biggest exclusively U.N. force in the world.
The council also called on Congo to ensure that its November 28 presidential and parliamentary elections take place in an atmosphere conducive to a "free, fair, credible, inclusive, transparent, peaceful and timely electoral process."
It added that the council "calls upon all parties to respect the results of the polls."
Congo's re-integration strategy, in which former rebels are drafted into the army, is seen by some as the best way of bringing an end to the rebellions, but critics say it undermines the national forces that are increasingly implicated in atrocities against civilians.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)