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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

AU force eyes securing south, central Somalia by August

The African Union's peacekeeping force in Somalia hopes to drive Somali Islamist militants out of the country's central and southern regions by August, when the U.N.-backed government's mandate expires, Uganda's top army general said on Tuesday.

Since its inception in 2007, the force, known as AMISOM, has focused its military campaign against al Shabaab rebels on the capital, Mogadishu. However, it expects to deploy troops into former rebel strongholds now held by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops after the United Nations voted last month in favour of increasing troop numbers to more than 17,700.

"The (African Union) will deploy its troops in southern and central Somalia as soon as possible. We hope Somalia will be completely peaceful before coming August," General Aronda Nyakairima, chief of Uganda's defence forces told reporters.

AMISOM has until now consisted almost entirely of Ugandan and Burundian troops. The increase in troops numbers is to a large extent to bring Kenyan forces fighting the insurgents in the country's southern tip under its command.

A 100-strong Djibouti contingent arrived in December and more soldiers from the Red Sea state and Sierra Leone are expected to join AMISOM's ranks by April and June respectively.

Nyakairima said Ugandan and Burundian troops would push out into the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions south of Mogadishu still held by al Shabaab. They will also move into central Somalia's Bay and Bakool regions, making Baidoa, which was seized by Ethiopian troops last month, their main base outside the capital.

Under the plan, peacekeepers from Kenya and Sierra Leone will secure southern Somalia's Gedo, and Juba regions, with their headquarters in Kismayu.

That, however, requires routing al Shabaab from the port city that has served as the nerve-centre of the militant's southern operations and as a financial lifeline.
A drawn out battle for Kismayu would risk huge civilian casualties and galvanising support for the militants.

Djibouti's troops are expected to hold Galmudug, Galgadud and Hiran regions.

Under the terms of a political road map, Somalia must establish a legitimate government seen as inclusive by the country's fractious clans, as well as a new parliament and constituent assembly to replace institutions plagued by corruption and infighting.

Although weakened, al Shabaab is the most powerful of an array of militias spawned by the conflict in Somalia, where armed groups have a history of wrecking attempted political settlements and perpetuating war, instability and famine.

Al Shabaab on Tuesday ordered the charity Save the Children to halt its relief work in areas under rebel control, accusing the organsiation of corruption and feeding children out-of-date porridge.

"(Al Shabaab) strives to protect the welfare of the entire Muslim population of Somalia and will implement all necessary safety measures to dissuade competing organisations from degrading their quality of life," the group said in a statement.

There was no immediate reaction from the aid group.

The rebels, who are hostile to foreign intervention in the lawless country, banned the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in January and 16 other organisations in November.

Areas governed by al Shabaab were among the worst hit by a famine in the second half of last year. Local residents and international charities accused the militants of stealing food and blocking aid as one of the worst droughts for decades gripped the region.


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