MOGADISHU— The top U.N. official for Somalia said more military force is needed to push Islamist militant group al-Shabab out of its remaining strongholds. Such strongholds include the town of Barawe -- the scene of a U.S. Special Forces strike over the weekend.
U.N. Special Representative for Somalia Nick Kay said al-Shabab “poses a real and present threat” to peace-building efforts in Somalia.
Speaking to VOA in Mogadishu Monday, he noted the al-Qaida-linked group is not as strong as it was before being pushed out of the capital and other major cities, but said further military operations are still needed to remove the militants from other parts of the country.
“We can help the Somalis to improve in Mogadishu by better policing, better intelligence, better coordination," Kay said. "But essentially, I don’t think we will remove that threat until we actually deal with al-Shabab outside Mogadishu and to do that -- yeah, some of it is asymmetric, but some of it is still relatively conventional.”
The African Union-led peacekeeping force, AMISOM, was instrumental in loosening al-Shabab’s hold on major cities in 2011 and 2012. But as allied Ethiopian forces start to pull out of Somalia, peacekeepers are finding they are stretched too thin to continue offensive operations.
Kay said U.N. Security Council members will likely discuss a temporary increase in the number of troops at a review of the AMISOM mission later this month.
One of the areas still under al-Shabab control is the coastal town of Barawe, south of the capital - the scene of a U.S. Special Forces operation over the weekend targeting a al-Shabab commander.
There has been no confirmation that the target, known by the name Ikrima, was apprehended or killed in the operation.
Kay said the U.N. did not know about the operation ahead of time, but said he supports the action.
“Clearly this is an area that is of strategic importance to al-Shabab, so certainly I support and welcome any effort that is made to remove al-Shabab from controlling that place," he said.
The Somali National Army is also lacking capacity to take over security in towns freed from militants.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman tells VOA the military needs airpower more than anything.
“You can imagine Somalia, which is the size of Afghanistan, we don’t have one helicopter, a gunship that can fight," Osman said. "And when these guys go to the remote areas, you can imagine, it’s easier for them to hide in these areas, so the best way to deal with this is through air operations, which we do not have that capacity.”
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for last month's terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital Nairobi -- demonstrating the group still has the capacity to strike beyond Somalia’s borders.