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AU force halts expansion operations in Somalia

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops in Somalia have halted capturing more territory from Islamic militants, a development security experts warn may reverse successes made in the lawless Horn of African country.

Gen. Edward Katumba Wamala, Chief of Defense Forces of the Ugandan military told reporters on Tuesday that the AU force has hit its limit regarding troop numbers, noting that expanding their operation would instead over stretch the soldiers.

"We have been discussing this with the AU and the United Nations. We have really been stretched to the maximum and we don't think we can expand more in terms of getting more areas under control with the present force levels," he told reporters at the Ministry of Defense headquarters.

"If the present force levels cannot be surged plus bringing into play force enablers and force multipliers like attack helicopters and transport helicopters, it would be very difficult for us to continue operating and thinking of opening up new areas which we may not be able to defend adequately."

Katumba said the best that can be done under the circumstance is to consolidate and clean up the area which the force is controlling now.

"We would have loved to link up with Kismayo, so that we have the whole stretch from Kismayo up to Mogadishu cleared but we cannot do that simply because we are overstretched. The more we stretch, the thinner we get on the ground and the more exposed we get to the Al-Shabaab," he said.

Al-Shabaab is a militant group fighting the Somali government and has launched several terror attacks across the East African region, including the weekend attack on a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi that left over 60 people dead.

Katumba said the current troop numbers of over 17,000 need to be raised to about 25,000 on the ground for the force to be able to expand its operations.

He said if countries can not send more troops to Somalia, the other alternative is to train and equip more Somali troops.

By the AU force halting its expansion operation, a safe haven may created for the Al-Shabaab to train and cause mayhem in the region.

"That gives them time to recover because they use the empty space, the ungoverned space to perfect their skills of terrorism. It is not a good thing," Katumba said.

"As far as defeating terrorism in the region, it is not a good development because Al-Shabaab is the back bone of terrorism within the East African region," he added.

The operation of the AU force in Somalia has faced financial problems as one of its main funder, the European Union, has put it on notice that it may not fund its operation to the same magnitude because of the financial problems back home.

There have been debates whether the AU force should be transformed into a UN force in order to attract more funding.

Katumba argued that this would not be necessary and would instead undermine the success of the mission since the Somali people prefer the AU troops.

"I think the AU, the green berets in Somalia, if anything; they have been able to win over the hearts and minds of the Somali people. Am not sure whether the Somali people would be very accommodative and welcoming to the blue berets (UN force) given the history we know about the UN and the Somalis," he said.

"To me I would rather not stampede changing that force into a UN force but instead give it what it takes for it to achieve the mission. Personally I would rather that this force which is on ground, which has proved its worth, be given what it takes to complete the job."

Uganda provides the bulk of the AU peacekeeping troops to Somalia, along with Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.

Since the deployment of AU troops in Somalia in 2007, there have been military gains in the country despite some attacks from the Al-Shabaab.

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