KAMPALA, (AP) – Two more countries will send troops to join a peacekeeping force protecting the embattled Somali government against al-Qaida-linked Islamist insurgents, the head of the African Union said Friday.
Djibouti and Guinea will both send troops to the Somali capital of Mogadishu, said AU commission president Jean Ping. The peacekeeping mission is authorized to send up to 8,000 soldiers, but Ping said the number may eventually rise to more than 10,000. The AU currently has about 6,000 troops from Uganda and Burundi in Somalia.
The new deployment announcement comes during a meeting of African Union leaders in Uganda, which suffered twin bombings July 11 during the World Cup final that killed 76 people. Al-Shabab, Somalia’s most feared militant group, claimed responsibility for the attacks and said they were in retaliation for civilian deaths caused by AU troops.
Ping did not rule out the possibility of a change in mandate that could see the peacekeepers’ current mission — to protect key government buildings — changed to authorize offensive action.
“Guinea is preparing a battalion to be sent to Somalia immediately. Djibouti prepared a battalion six months ago. Guinea’s commanders are in Mogadishu preparing for the arrival of their troops,” Ping said.
Ping did not specify the number of troops Guinea plans to send. A battalion can consist of between several hundred troops to more than 1,000.
Human rights groups have accused Guinea’s armed forces of severe abuses, including the massacre of over 150 opposition supporters in 2009 and several gang rapes.
The weak U.N.-backed Somali government is fighting an Islamist insurgency that is itself riven by divisions. The strongest insurgent group, al-Shabab, has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. State Department says some of its leaders have links to al-Qaida.
Intelligence sources say hundreds of extremist foreign fighters are operating in the failed state. Many of them are Somalis with dual nationalities and diplomats fear they may one day launch an attack on the West. Many of the fighters have experience in the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq battlefields, international officials say.
The EU and U.S. are spending millions of dollars to train 2,000 Somali government soldiers at bases in Uganda.
Somalia has not had a functioning government for 20 years. The current administration holds a few blocks of the capital and has been hampered by squabbling and corruption. The president recently reshuffled the Cabinet but many of the same officials remain and it is unclear how the new administration intends to provide services or security.