Tuesday, October 24, 2006

AU ready for Somalia mission - Arab League pledge of $50-million to boost the Darfur mission has not yet materialised

Reuters report via Africast Global Africa Network MOGADISHU, October 24, 2006:
The African Union is ready for a controversial peacekeeping mission in Somalia but nowhere near implementing an intended 4 000 troop expansion of its stretched Darfur force, a top official said on Tuesday.

"African countries are willing to give any amount of troops for peacekeeping ... (but) I'm telling you, that might be impossible," peace and security director Geofrey Mugumya said of the proposed increase to the 7 000-strong AU force in Darfur.

Such an expansion is seen by diplomats as a stop-gap before a possible mission transfer to U.N. troops in the vast Sudanese region. Conflict there has killed an estimated 200 000 people and displaced another 2,5 million since early 2003.

Khartoum, however, opposes UN entry, the AU mission's mandate ends on December 31, and the pan-African body is struggling even to rotate current battalions, let alone add the intended six more at a cost of roughly $80-million (about R620-million).

"Sometimes you get promises (of funds), but they are not translated into reality," he said at AU headquarters in Ethiopia, saying an Arab League pledge of $50-million to boost the Darfur mission had not yet materialised.

"Here we spend most of our time smiling at donors rather than on real issues."

The AU official was more upbeat, however, about the likelihood of a Ugandan-led African peacekeeping mission in Somalia. It would be tasked with bolstering an interim government challenged by the rise of powerful Islamists.

"Ugandan forces are ready and will go if the arms embargo is lifted or modified," he said, adding that the UN Security Council was meeting in November to mull such a change, a pre-requisite for an African intervention.

The Mogadishu-based Islamists have threatened to fight any foreign troops, and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has said such an intervention would justify jihad.

But Mugumya insisted an African force would calm the situation, rather than inflame it. "What we want is to protect the Transitional Federal Government, so it does not go back to being stateless, we want to put water on the fire," he said.

"It's always consensus minus one. ... And can you get consensus from Osama bin Laden?"

Though backed by the West and the Horn of Africa's most powerful nation Ethiopia, the Somali government has little control beyond the outlying town of Baidoa which is its base.

Some diplomats say if a proposed Ugandan troop vanguard goes in, it might call the Islamists' bluff, and enable the government to rally forces from disparate militia currently lying dormant around Somalia.

Uganda has emerged as the only nation probably able to send troops to Somalia in the short-term, because most others in the east African regional body IGAD, which would head the mission in coordination with the AU, border Somalia and fear being drawn into a conflict that could spill across their own territory.

Uganda has said it could fund itself in Somalia for six months, and other funds could be found from the European Union and elsewhere to gradually increase the force to 10 000 or more, Mugumya said.

It is all theoretical, however, if the United Nations fails to alter its arms embargo on Somalia, which is, despite the embargo, awash with weapons. The country has been in chaos since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.

"You obviously can't send troops unarmed," Mugumya said.

Aspiring to provide local solutions to Africa's crises, the AU is hoping to set up a five-brigade standby force for rapid intervention by 2010.

Darfur, however, came too early, Mugumya said, so the AU would welcome a UN takeover even though it may realistically have to extend its mandate into next year.

"The AU finds itself between a rock and a hard place. If it leaves, what would happen? If we stay, do we have resources?" he said.

Often criticised for failing to stop suffering in Darfur, the AU should be credited for rapid deployments and some stabilisation against all odds, he argued.

"AU troops move fast under harsh conditions. Would UN soldiers sleep under trees like the locals?"


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