An alliance of mostly East African nations is preparing a coordinated military campaign in Somalia to finish off the embattled al-Shabab extremist group. The al-Qaida-inspired extremists were driven out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu by African Union troops in August, and have recently lost ground to advancing Kenyan forces in the south. The plan includes possibly sending Ethiopian troops back to Somalia.
The ongoing Kenyan operation in southern Somalia, and al-Shabab's recent collapse in Mogadishu, are raising hopes that the militants' stranglehold on Somalia can be broken.
Toward that end, heads of state from the six-nation Horn of Africa regional bloc known as IGAD will meet next Friday to discuss a military strategy aimed at greatly expanding the control of Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government.
Planners say the Addis Ababa summit will encourage all IGAD countries, including Ethiopia, to contribute to the effort.
Ethiopian officials say no formal decision has been made on joining the list of troop contributing countries. But foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti says Addis Ababa will help the campaign in any way possible.
"You can simply guess Ethiopia is going to be part and parcel of this process," said Dina. "The decision is not made as to sending the army, but per the IGAD council's resolutions of the past months, all IGAD member countries, the African Union and others also will be summoned, will be called, will be expected to somehow contribute something to strengthening the operations in Somalia."
Dina said a decision on Ethiopia's role in the offensive would probably be announced at next Friday's summit.
Ethiopian troops are regarded unfavorably by many Somalis, who remember them for brutality during a previous incursion from 2006 to 2009, made to support the Somali government. The troops were withdrawn after their presence became an al-Shabab recruiting tool.
Dina says conditions are different now. He says this time Ethiopia is part of a broad alliance of countries that recognize al-Shabab as a threat to regional stability.
"It's not only Ethiopia that's interested in crushing al-Shabab, it's in the interest of the IGAD countries, the African countries, even the international community to get rid of al-Shabab, which is actually quite a menace to the region," added Dina.
Besides controlling large portions of central Somalia, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a bombing in Uganda's capital last year that killed 76 people. Kenya blames the group for a series of recent cross-border kidnappings of foreigners, an allegation al-Shabab has denied.
Two senior United Nations peacekeeping officials were at African Union headquarters this week for a briefing on the Somalia strategy, which includes asking for U.N. authorization to double the size of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to 20,000 troops. Diplomats say the plan calls for Kenyan troops to be brought under the AMISOM command, but not Ethiopian troops.
AU Peace and Security Director El-Ghassim Wane says U.N. and wider international support is needed to capitalize on the gains made by AMISOM and the Kenyan offensive.
"We believe the Kenyan operation is further contributing to weakening al-Shabab and creating space for the political process to take hold and lead to the conclusion of the transition next August... It's a challenging task, and we are fully aware of it, and that's why we are calling for further and enhanced support from the United Nations and the larger international community," said Wane.
Uganda and Burundi currently contribute the bulk of the nearly 10,000 AMISOM troops, with tiny Djibouti adding a small contingent. Kenya is said to be ready to contribute several thousand, and AU officials say Sierra Leone is preparing a few battalions that could be ready to join the operation within months.
The United Nations, which funds a large portion of AMISOM, and several other countries are said to be ready to provide what are called "force enablers," such as helicopters and other equipment to support the mission.