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AU Determined to Keep Peacekeepers in Somalia


The African Union has affirmed its intention to keep its peacekeeping mission in Somalia as Ethiopian troops withdraw and to boost its manpower in the face of precarious security conditions.

The United Nations is also signaling a renewed willingness to support efforts to bring stability to Somalia - a nation virtually ungovernable for nearly two decades.

A news release issued on Tuesday at AU headquarters reiterated the continental body's intention to back Somalia's Transitional Federal Government as it chooses a new leader following last week's resignation of President Abdullahi Yusuf.

Somali and Western diplomatic sources said a number of candidates are jockeying for the post, as members of parliament try to name a successor within 30 days, as specified in the transitional charter.

The AU statement acknowledged deteriorating security in the Horn of Africa nation, with fresh fighting leading to the death of dozens of people and a massive displacement of civilians.

But AU Peace and Security Council spokesman El-Ghassim Wane said there is no plan to withdraw the 3,500 strong peacekeeping force, at least for the next few months.

"The task ahead of us is not to pull out the troops, but rather how to strengthen the mission on the ground, and efforts are being made to that end. As far as the safety of mission is concerned, it seems in the context like the one prevailing currently Mogadishu and rest of Somalia - the risks are high. So we know that and are aware of the risks. But we are also fully aware of the responsibilities toward the people," he said.

The United Nations is signaling that it might boost its presence in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. U.N. envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said Tuesday that the world body should create a Baghdad-style "Green Zone" security area so it can base aid workers there. That suggestion followed word that gunmen had killed a Somali aid worker employed by the U.N. World Food Program.

AU spokesman El-Ghassim Wane said the environment in which the African Union Mission in Somalia is operating has changed significantly with the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces. He said the job would be difficult even if the mission were brought up to its authorized strength of 8,000 troops. But he emphasized that the AU force is strictly defensive.

"The mission is mandated to protect itself, to use the right self defense - to protect installations and equipment. Clearly, the mission is not in Somalia to fight, but rather to support these efforts. But if it comes under attack, definitely it will protect itself. But our primary aim and mandate is to support the Somali people. The mission is to support the Somali people," said Wane.

In Tuesday's AU statement, Commission Chairman Jean Ping thanked the United States, Britain, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations for their support. He also thanked Uganda and Burundi - the two countries contributing troops to the AU mission - for what he called their "unwavering support" to the search for peace in Somalia.

At the same time, Ping again chided the United Nations Security Council for its reluctance to get involved in Somalia, stating that it has primary responsibility for peace and security worldwide.

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