Africa boosts Somalia force

KAMPALA (AFP)— The African force battling Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Mogadishu will be boosted by a battalion from Guinea and could further swell to reach 10,000 troops, the African Union said Friday.

The announcement came during ministerial meetings ahead of the continental body’s 15th leaders’ summit and less than two weeks after Somalia’s Shebab rebels bombed Kampala in a bid to force a withdrawal of the Ugandan-led force.

“Guinea is ready to immediately dispatch a battalion,” AU chief Jean Ping said at a press conference. “We are going to quickly top the 8,000 mark… I think the current trend could take us over 10,000.”

The AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) currently consists of Ugandan and Burundian battalions each averaging around 800 troops.

Ping did not specify the size of the contingent to be sent by Guinea, which is still officially suspended from the AU as a result of a military coup in 2008.

“There will be a rapid surge to reach the maximum size and the current threats will not prevent this deployment,” he said.

The Shebab, an Al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group, claimed responsibility for suicide blasts that hit crowds watching the World Cup final in Kampala on July 11, killing 76 people in the region’s deadliest attacks in years.

They said the bombings were in retaliation for Uganda’s role in AMISOM, which has been the only obstacle to the Shebab overrunning the few parts of Mogadishu still held by the government, and threatened to strike Burundi next.

But instead of forcing contributing nations to pull out their troops, the attacks spurred fresh calls for the continent to further support AMISOM by sending it more troops and making its mandate more robust.

The Shebab have in recent weeks intensified their offensive against Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s weak government.

AMISOM’s spokesman in Mogadishu said Friday that two Ugandan soldiers were killed Wednesday during clashes in Mogadishu’s Bondhere district.

“Two of our soldiers from Uganda were killed in clashes on Wednesday and three were injured,” spokesman Ba-Hoku Barigye told AFP. “The three wounded were taken to Nairobi for treatment.”

AMISOM-backed government forces and Shebab-led insurgents have been locked in an almost daily military see-saw over Bondhere and its surrounding areas, which are seen as a strategically important in the battle for Mogadishu.

The beleaguered Somali government had feared that a new proposed US policy of “constructive disengagement” was gradually going to leave it isolated and clear the way for the Shebab to complete their power grab.

But the attacks in Kampala, the first of their kind outside of Somalia by the Shebab, fueled renewed calls for international action against the Shebab, whose leadership openly proclaims its allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

The United States has long voiced concern that Somalia, which has been lawless for most of the past two decades, could become a new safe haven for Al-Qaeda operatives.

Ping also reiterated at the press conference that the African Union was seeking a tougher mandate for AMISOM under the United Nations Charter’s chapter seven, allowing it to take more aggressive action.

“If this request is answered positively, our troops will attack,” he said.

Experts believe AMISOM could already significantly weaken the Shebab and reduce their presence in Mogadishu if given a more robust mandate but the force’s present task is mainly to protect the Somali government.

The regional body IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) announced a decision earlier this month to send the 2,000 troops needed for AMISOM to reach its full authorised strength.

Uganda said after the Kampala attacks that it could provide the 2,000 extra troops if no other country did and urged its neighbours to chip in.