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No big offensive in Somalia, fight to be 'gradual'

By KATHARINE HOURELD
Thursday April 01, 2010

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — Despite months of pronouncements by officials that a big offensive is imminent, Somalia's prime minister told The Associated Press the government will only gradually try to expand its control of the capital, most of which is held by al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebels.

Officials familiar with the offensive's planning said it was repeatedly delayed because the Somali army lacks equipment, training and a reliable system to pay its soldiers — problems that the EU hopes to address by training 2,000 troops under a plan it approved Wednesday.

Any offensive action will be more of a gradual expansion of the area under the government's control, Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said, claiming the media had misunderstood the government's plans.

"It is not a big push. It will be gradual and well-planned," Sharmarke said in an interview Wednesday.

U.S. diplomats have been pressing Somali leaders to detail the goals of the assault, to figure out how the U.S. could help. The Pentagon is considering dispatching surveillance drones and other limited military support. Somali Interior Minister of State Abdirashid Mohamed Hidig said there is already "strong collaboration" between the U.S. and Somalia on security, humanitarian and development issues and that U.S. surveillance planes already fly over Somalia's skies, something Somalia encourages.

"The U.S. has the full permission to carry out any security operations against international and local terrorists in Somalia. It had already targeted some terrorist elements," Hidig said. A 2008 airstrike and a 2009 helicopter raid by U.S. special forces killed two men accused of terrorism.

In a sign of building international support for the beleaguered government, the EU will send around 100 military officials to help train two groups of 1,000 soldiers each for six months at a time in Uganda, which already contributes peacekeeping troops to an African Union mission in Somalia.

The EU said it will work in close partnership with the U.S., U.N. and African Union.

U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment on the form their support might take in the training. Somali State Minister for Defense Yusuf Mohamed Siyad said it is hoped the U.S. would help guarantee pay for the soldiers.

Without a guaranteed salary, soldiers might simply desert to the Islamists after training. Siyad said this has happened several times before. The U.S. already pays the salaries of about 1,800 Somali soldiers, he said.

The Somali government is also hoping that divisions between the two main Islamist insurgent factions deepen before any offensive, Hidig said. Two insurgent groups that are nominal allies, Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab, have launched a campaign of assassinations against each other in recent weeks. Al-Shabab controls much of Somalia and large sections of its capital, and is loosely allied with al-Qaida.

Somalia has not had a functioning government for nearly 20 years.

Associated Press reporter Malkhadir Muhumed in Nairobi contributed to this report.