Thursday, March 01, 2007

First batch of AU peacekeepers lands in Somalia

Mar 1 2007 Reuters report:
By Sahal Abdulle

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The Ugandan vanguard of an African peacekeeping force intended to help Somalia's interim government tighten its tenuous grip on the anarchic nation flew into the country on Thursday, witnesses said.

Underlining the formidable task awaiting the African Union (AU) mission, gunmen shot dead three people at the house of the director of Mogadishu's port, the latest in a wave of guerrilla-style attacks in the coastal capital.

A cargo plane dropped off 35 uniformed Ugandan officers early in the morning at the government stronghold of Baidoa, customs officer Ali Mohamed Adan said. Police officer Isak Hassan Warsame also said he saw the Ugandan officers land.

But Ugandan army Capt. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU mission, denied any military personnel had left yet. "There are no troops in Somalia," he said in Uganda.

Baidoa is the south-central trading town the government used as a temporary base before ousting militant Islamists from Mogadishu in a December offensive backed by Ethiopia's military.

The town is expected to be a key rear staging area for the proposed 8,000-strong AU force, designed to replace Ethiopian troops who helped President Abdullahi Yusuf's government defeat the Islamists in less than two weeks.

The Ugandan peacekeepers are due to patrol Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous and gun-infested cities.

In the latest attack there, unidentified gunmen struck the house of port director Abdi Jiinow on Thursday morning. A reporter at the scene, Abdullahi Addow, said three people died -- one attacker, a bodyguard and a visitor to the house.


Uganda has kept the exact troop deployment date secret, aware that insurgents who blast away almost daily at joint government-Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu have threatened to attack any peacekeepers or government allies.

The insurgents are suspected to be a mix of Islamist guerrillas and clan militia fighting for control of the city.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni waved off two battalions of peacekeepers at a ceremony on Thursday as they prepared to deploy. Officials said the 1,635 troops would land in Mogadishu, as soon as equipment arrives by sea, probably next week.

"This is a fully capable force to undertake any task within (its) mandate," Museveni shouted out to silent rows of soldiers in bright green AU berets at a barracks in Jinja, east of Kampala, where they underwent peacekeeping training.

Last year, Uganda denied witness accounts and a U.N. report that a handful of its personnel were inside Somalia. Ethiopia did likewise for most of 2006, denying almost daily witness sightings of thousands of its troops.

Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi and Burundi are also expected to send troops to bring the force to about half its planned strength of nine battalions.

As with its previous peacekeeping foray in Sudan's violent Darfur region, the AU is facing a shortage of money and equipment.

Somalia has been in anarchy since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. A well-funded U.S.-U.N. peacekeeping mission in the mid-1990s ended in failure and a bloody withdrawal.

Under foreign pressure to make his government more inclusive, Yusuf told parliament on Thursday a national reconciliation conference would be held in Mogadishu on April 16 with 3,000 delegates from Somalia's myriad clans and factions.


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