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Somalia peacekeepers taught urban warfare
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Saturday, May 30, 2009

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Somalia's Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers have years of experience battling rebels at home, but faced with Mogadishu's Islamist insurgents they have had to enlist the help of a private company.

The main threat is often invisible and comes in the shape of an explosive device: the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has suffered its worst losses in roadside bomb or car bomb attacks.

Unfamiliar with the kind of guerrilla tactics that US-led foreign troops in Iraq have been dealing with, AMISOM hired Bancroft Global Development, a private outfit based in South Africa and specialising in "landmine research".

At the gate to AMISOM's fortified headquarters in the war-ravaged seaside Somali capital, members of the force's Ugandan contingent are being trained.

Wagging its tail, a black labrador is led around a grey Mercedes, which sits with doors, bonnet and boot open. It sniffs behind the tyres and on the seats: no explosives.

"Any type of explosives, the dog can find them. They are 100 percent reliable. No machine or technology could do that better," said David Schoman, a Bancroft expert wearing fatigues and a khaki T-shirt.

If the sniffer dog detects something, it sits. "Then one of the military police guys goes around and searches the car with a mirror as well, so we check it twice," Schoman explained.

"You've got different types (of explosives) but the dog can find all of them. He's trained for three months on all of them. The same type of dogs is used in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are labradors and German shepherds."

Since the African Union peacekeeping force dispatched its first Ugandan contingent to Mogadishu in March 2007, the most deadly weapon used by hardliners opposed to their presence has been IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

More than half of the peacekeepers killed over the past two years died in such attacks, involving bombs either planted by the roadside or concealed in vehicles.

"For us the main threat is the IEDs," said Jack Bakasumba, operations commander for AMISOM's Ugandan contingent.

"For the three or four kilometres between the airport and the K4 crossroad, we set up some monitoring positions because that was where we had the highest number of incidents with IEDs," he explained.

In February, a suicide car bombing targeting Burundian troops killed 11 people, including the two bombers, and completely destroyed a building where the peacekeepers had set up a small shop run by Somalis.

"For almost a year, these Somalis prepared their suicide mission, and they would use that same car to come here. One Sunday, they waited for the soldiers to return from prayers and gather in the courtyard to blow up their charge," said General Prime Niyongabo, commander of the Burundian contingent.

"We have understood that with the Somalis, there can be no friends. So now, not a single Somali enters the camp, not a single car," he said.

AMISOM spokesman Bahuko Barigye explained that hiring a private security company was necessary to avoid unnecessary losses.

"The Ugandan army doesn't have any experience in IEDs, so when we were confronted with that scourge, we had to find a solution," he said.

Bancroft Global Development was contracted by AMISOM donors, had already worked with the Ugandan army in the past and was an obvious choice, Barigye explained.

Bancroft expert Rocky Van Blerk explained how his company conducts research on the explosive devices, raises awareness, offers training and active protection for the Ugandan base.

"Soon there will be some dogs at the Burundian base. It is because they had no dogs that the kamikaze could enter," said Van Blerk, who honed his skills in Iraq and Afghanistan for four years before working in Somalia.