African leaders seek to beef up Somalia force

AU leaders seek to obtain a mandate to crush Islamist insurgents in Somalia.

Kampala: African Union leaders begin a three-day summit in Kampala on Sunday to boost the organisation`s troop levels in Somalia and obtain a mandate to crush Islamist insurgents in the war-torn nation.

More than 30 heads of state from the AU`s 53 members gathered amid unprecedented security in the Ugandan capital, two weeks after suicide attacks in the city claimed by Somalia`s Shebab group killed 76 people.

The bombings that ripped through crowds watching the World Cup final were meant to bully Uganda into pulling out of the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the last thing standing between the Shebab and total power.

Uganda reacted by saying it could send 2,000 more troops and urged more decisive international support, while the embattled Somali government argued the attacks were evidence Somalia required the world`s attention.

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

Diplomats in Kampala say that Angola, Mozambique and South Africa may also pledge troops, whose current deployment consists of just over 6,000 Ugandans and Burundians.

The Shebab leadership has proclaimed its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and the group`s first bomb attacks outside Somalia renewed fears that the Horn of Africa country could become a new safe haven for al Qaeda.

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.

Troops from the United States and the United Nations have previously not been able to crush the insurgency in Somalia, which has been without an effective government for two decades.

Eritrea, which is under international sanctions and has been accused of supporting the Shebab, argues that the Islamist insurgency needs to be engaged at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.

"We believe that military involvement can not bring a peaceful solution," Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh said on Friday on the sidelines of the pre-summit ministerial gathering.

The Shebab -- as well as Mogadishu residents and rights groups -- have criticised AMISOM for causing civilian deaths by shelling targets in densely-populated areas.

Analysts have warned a beefed up AMISOM mandate could make things worse.

"We are quite worried about the consequences of such an operation, because if they are engaged in quite an indiscriminate manner, they run the risk of playing in the hands of the Shebab," said the International Crisis Group`s Ernst Jan Hogendoorn.

The continent`s leaders are also expected to discuss the future of Sudan, where the oil-rich south is due to hold a referendum on independence in January.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose movements have been under close scrutiny since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant against him over the war in Darfur, is not expected to attend.

In a year that saw a raft of elections, Africa`s top officials and diplomats are also expected to reflect on the progress of democracy and accountability in member states.

Elections in Burundi are being boycotted after opposition claims of fraud, polls in Ethiopia were marred by similar accusations and Rwanda`s ongoing campaign has been tarnished by murders and arrests.

The only recent elections that met international standards were those in Somaliland, which is not a state.

The northern Somali breakaway territory has been asking for international recognition for years and hopes that its smooth and democratic transfer of power will boost its case with the African Union.

Bureau Report

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