US seeks ways to assist African forces in Somalia

The United States military is prepared to step up assistance to African Union forces in Somalia, where violence has escalated since al-Shabaab Islamist rebels carried out bombings in Uganda earlier this month, a top US general said on Tuesday.

US intelligence agencies have warned of a growing threat from militants aligned with al-Qaeda in lawless Somalia and nearby Yemen, and the Obama administration has made it a priority to track and target wanted militants in the region.

The expanded US military assistance to AU forces could include additional equipment, training, logistical support and information-sharing, General William Ward, commander of US Africa Command, and other officials said.

Fighting between al-Shabaab rebels and government forces in the north of Somalia’s capital has killed at least 52 civilians and wounded scores over the past week, according to a local rights group.

The violence in Mogadishu has intensified since al-Shabaab suicide bombers killed more than 70 people watching the Soccer World Cup final in Uganda’s capital on July 11.

Troops from Uganda and Burundi make up the roughly 6 300-strong AU force protecting key sites in Mogadishu and there have been calls for their mandate to be widened so they can go on the offensive against the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

“The nations that are contributing forces to … the AU mission in Somalia — we are working very closely with their logistics, their training, their transportation, information that they would use to be effective in what they do, and we continue looking to ways, based on what they ask us, to enhance these efforts,” Ward told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.

Key moments
He said the envisaged expansion in US assistance was not triggered by the Uganda bombings: “We were already looking at how can we be more robust in helping these nations.”

Asked by reporters later if unmanned US military drone aircraft could be used to support AU contingents on the ground, Ward said: “That’s not a part of it at this point in time.”

“It’s all considered but it’s nothing that’s been determined,” he added.

Ward played down the impact of the recent bombings in Uganda on the resolve of African states to send forces to Somalia, telling reporters: “At this point in time they [troop-contributing nations] remain committed to it. So we take them at their word and we’re hopeful that will be the case.”

Al-Shabaab and another Islamist militia have been fighting the Western-backed Somali government since the start of 2007. They control much of the capital but have failed so far to drive President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed from office.

The AU force, known as Amisom, has stepped in at key moments to protect the president’s palace and Uganda said last week it was ready to send another 2 000 troops to help take the fight to the rebels.

At least 21 000 civilians have been killed since the start of the insurgency. Aid agencies and rights groups have become increasingly concerned about indiscriminate shelling and some have accused combatants on all sides of war crimes.

Al-Shabaab said the suicide attacks in Uganda on July 11 were to avenge the killing of civilians by AU forces. — Reuters

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