Friday, December 12, 2008

African Union Commission Head Wants Peacekeepers to Remain in Somalia

AU chief wants peacekeepers to remain in Somalia

Saturday, December 13

(AFP) - - African Union chief Jean Ping voiced concern Friday over suggestions that AU peacekeepers could abandon lawless Somalia within a month, saying that this was "something we cannot accept."

"We are really very preoccupied, but we hope that something will be done to avoid that," Ping told a news conference in the Ethiopian capital after suggestions that the 3,400 Burundian and Ugandan peacekeepers were preparing to leave the country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi sent shockwaves through the African Union and the wider world on Thursday, when he told parliament he had been informed by both countries that they wanted to withdraw their peacekeepers from Somalia as soon as possible.

Uganda issued an immediate denial, but Ping confirmed Meles' comments.

"They (Uganda and Burundi) envisaged it, but I sincerely hope it will not happen," he told reporters.

Ping said the African Union had been making serious diplomatic efforts to strengthen the peacekeeping force and keep it in Somalia after a planned pullout of Ethiopian forces early next month.

"We have asked the African countries to increase their participation in Somalia, asked the UNSC (UN Security Council) to join us there, and to the AU partners to help us financing this force.

"A withdrawal from Somalia is something we cannot accept, not only the AU, but also the rest of the world," he added.

Ethiopian troops, who intervened in Somalia in 2006 to prop-up the weak transitional government, will be withdrawn early next month, leaving the ill-equipped and under-strength peacekeeping force on its own to face a resurgent Islamic rebellion.

"They have already informed us that they would want to withdraw before we do, and we are only waiting for ships and planes to arrive in Somalia in order for them to pull out," Meles told parliament.

"The main issue now is to ensure that Ugandan and Burundese peacekeepers pull out safe and sound," he said.

Ping told the news conference that the mooted withdrawal of the peacekeepers was "subject to a certain number of conditions that are not yet met".

He cited the Ethiopian pull out -- a dead certainty according to Meles -- the absence of a political agreement between Somalia's warring factions, and the continued absence of reinforcements for the AMISOM peacekeeping force.

Uganda and Burundi have borne the burden of AMISOM alone, and have waited in vain for other African nations to stump up the bulk of the force, which was to have a full operational strength of 8,000.

Ethiopia has said it is prepared to delay its pullout by a "few days" in January so as not to expose the AU forces to an onslaught by the Shebab, the Islamist insurgents who control large parts of Somalia and have been closing in on Mogadishu.

The AU has meanwhile been scrambling to avoid a "security vacuum" in Somalia, which has been without a functioning government since 1991, and on Wednesday Ping called on the UN Security Council to authorise the deployment of UN forces instead.

At least nine AU peacekeepers have been killed in Somalia since they were first deployed in March last year.

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