ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan, seeking a more prominent role on the world stage, decided on Friday to send officers to aid United Nations peacekeeping missions next year for the first time since independence in 1991.
Twenty officers, who will have observer status at U.N. peacekeeping forces, will be sent in groups of five to Haiti, Western Sahara, Ivory Coast and Liberia, in line with a decision by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev backed unanimously by both chambers of the legislature on Friday.
It will be the first time the world's ninth-largest nation by area and Central Asia's largest economy, helped by oil production, joins U.N. peacekeeping since it won independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union 22 years ago.
Kazakhstan's support of U.N. peacekeeping efforts should assist its candidacy for non-permanent membership of the 15-seat U.N. Security Council, the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
Defence Minister Adilbek Jaksybekov said that in the future Astana could send up to 150 servicemen to support U.N. peacekeepers around the world. He did not elaborate.
"Taking part in these missions ... will contribute greatly to Kazakhstan's authority worldwide," he told parliament.
In 2003-2008, a Kazakh officer was killed in Iraq when serving in a small unit of engineers helping U.S.-led coalition forces to clear mines and purify water.
Kazakhstan, which is a mainly Muslim secular state, planned to send four officers to join NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2011. However, it put the decision on hold after the Taliban warned Astana about the "serious consequences" of this step.
(Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; Additional reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov)