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US Backs Arab-African Force for Somalia Peacekeeping

Two senior U.S. officials in East Africa say the situation in Somalia is improving despite continued violence. They have pledged American support for a joint Arab-African peacekeeping force for the shattered country. Nick Wadhams has the story from our Nairobi bureau.

Speaking to reporters at the U.S. Embassy in the Kenyan capital, U.S. Ambassador Michael Rannenberger and the special U.S. envoy for Somalia, John Yates, said American counter-terrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa have "severely disrupted" al-Qaida in the region.

Rannenberger said that a meeting of the Somali National Reconciliation Congress that ended last month came up with several important ideas on security, elections and drafting a new constitution. He said the United States is willing to help fund future meetings in the reconciliation process.

"We do think that the results of the Somali National Reconciliation Congress were very positive," said Rannenberger. "They came out with a number of specific recommendations that now need to be implemented, which do provide, in our judgment, a basis for moving forward and sustaining momentum on national reconciliation. Let me be very, very clear, the national reconciliation process is not over but this is a milestone in that process."

The reconciliation process has been derided as a failure by opponents of Somalia's transitional government and members of the Islamic Courts Union, which was driven from much of the country by Ethiopian troops early this year.

A group led by former Islamic Courts chief Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has been meeting in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. That group has promised a new war in Somalia if necessary.

Rannenberger and Yates dismissed the group, calling it isolated.

"It would be wrong to see the situation in Somalia as something that's proceeding in a downward spiral," said Rannenberger. "If anything, it's the opposite. We now have more momentum on national reconciliation, and that ultimately will constrain some of the violence. And the Ethiopians have in our view been a force that has helped to contribute to that security, they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

In a bid to restore stability, Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, has put forward a proposal for a joint Arab-African force. Yates and Rannenberger voiced support for the idea.

Yates said the deployment of a separate African Union force is taking place too slowly, though he said a contingent from Burundi would arrive in October.

The Ethiopians and the transitional government have struggled to maintain control of the capital, Mogadishu, and elsewhere. Bombings and shootings are a daily occurrence, and Mogadishu is far too dangerous for outsiders without heavy security.

The United Nations says some 340,000 people have fled Mogadishu since February, and numerous non-governmental organizations have reported severe malnutrition among the refugees.

In other news, Rannenberger and Yates said they are trying to verify reports that a man suspected in bombing attacks in Kenya in 2002, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, was shot and killed in Somalia this week.