/ 12 December 2008

AU wants peacekeepers to remain in Somalia

African Union chief Jean Ping said on Friday he wants AU peacekeepers to remain in Somalia, adding that a withdrawal from the chaotic country was ”something we cannot accept”.

”We are really very preoccupied, but we hope that something will be done to avoid that” the 3 400 Burundian and Ugandan peacekeepers will leave the country, Ping told a news conference.

”They [Uganda and Burundi] envisaged it, but I sincerely hope it will not happen.”

Ping said the African Union had been making serious diplomatic efforts to strengthen the peacekeeping force and keep it in Somalia even after the Ethiopian army pulls out of the country, possibly by early next year.

”We have asked the African countries to increase their participation in Somalia, asked the United Nations Security Council to join us there, and to the AU partners to help us financing this force.

”A withdrawal from Somalia is something we cannot accept, not only the AU, but also the rest of the world,” he added.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi caused shockwaves on Thursday when he said Uganda and Burundi, the only contributors to the AU force, wanted to withdraw their embattled peacekeepers ahead of Ethiopian troops.

Uganda immediately issued a strong denial, while an AU official in Burundi said the country had only on Wednesday pledged to send another battalion to Somalia.

Ethiopia announced last month it was ending its two-year intervention in Somalia, where it sent about 3 000 troops in 2006 to prop up the government and clear the threat of an Islamic insurgency from its own borders.

That announcement caused panic within the AU, whose under-equipped peacekeepers are meant to take over security duties but need more time to prepare, and get up to full operational strength of 8 000.

Addis Ababa subsequently said it was prepared to delay its pull-out ”by a few days” in order not to expose AU forces to an onslaught by the al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgents who control large parts of Somalia and have been closing in on Mogadishu in recent weeks.

The AU has, meanwhile, been scrambling to avoid a ”security vacuum” in Somalia, and on Wednesday Ping called on the UN Security Council to authorise the deployment of UN forces in Somalia.

At least nine AU peacekeepers have been killed in Somalia since they were first deployed in March last year. — Sapa-AFP