The United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest, is in disarray after fighting in the country’s east has called into question efforts to rebuild the failed state.

The UN Security Council on Friday voted to renew the mandate of the 18,000-strong peacekeeping force for a year. The vote came just days after a government offensive supported by the UN against a dissident ethnic Tutsi general turned into a humiliating rout.

It was intended to extinguish some of the last flames in a conflict that has claimed 4m lives over the past nine years. But the Congolese army’s retreat has left UN soldiers as the only obstacle to further rebel advances, and has obliged the government to call for negotiations with an alleged war criminal.

The fighting is symptomatic of tensions unresolved since 1m Hutu refugees poured across the border into Congo, bringing with them militiamen and the poisonous ethnic ideology that fuelled the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Much of the ensuing violence has wreaked havoc in Congo, where the government is struggling to assert state authority. The US has sporadically thrown its weight behind the now-threatened peace process.

A fresh refugee crisis is now under way. Since the beginning of the year, 400,000 Congolese have been uprooted in North Kivu province.

Locally, the UN mission (Monuc) is bearing the brunt of criticism. It has been beset by scandals. François Grignon, Africa director for the International Crisis Group, said it had tended to be reactive, while failing to address the underlying causes of the violence.

He said Monuc had been accused by the government of Joseph Kabila, elected as president a year ago in UN-sponsored polls, of being half-hearted in its support. It is blamed by rebels for taking sides, and it is loathed by civilians who have suffered the most from the violence.

William Swing, the outgoing head of Monuc, admitted that some of the goals of the mission, set up in 1999, had yet to be met.

But on the eve of the Security Council vote, he said: “Of all the crises in Africa, the one that if solved offers potentially the greatest benefits to the whole continent, is the Congo.”

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