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AU Extends Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia

The 53-member African Union says its peacekeeping mission in Somalia has been extended another six months because U.N. forces are not ready to take over peacekeeping duties in the war-torn country. Uganda, the only AU country with troops in Somalia, confirms that its 1,500 troops will stay despite a delay by other countries to deploy. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Uganda's Minister of State for Defense, Ruth Nankabirwa tells VOA that Ugandan troops, sent to Somalia's violent capital in March, have no choice, but to remain in place until the African Union, says otherwise.

"Of course, it cannot be an indefinite deployment," she said. "But what is important to note is that we cannot just withdraw. We were deployed by an authority. That authority has to guide us on how to withdraw."

The AU mission was approved on January 19, three weeks after an Ethiopia-led military campaign ousted Somalia's Islamist movement from power in Mogadishu.

The mission carried a six-month mandate to help stabilize Somalia and protect the country's internationally recognized, but weak interim government. A force of about 8,000 African Union soldiers from half-a-dozen countries was supposed to deploy and then be replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force when the mandate expired.

But late Wednesday, the African Union announced that it would continue the mission, because the United Nations could not meet the deadline to deploy troops in Somalia.

The decision to extend the AU mandate for another six months comes amid increasing concern that Uganda may be the only member country willing and able to contribute troops to the mission.

Burundi, Ghana, Malawi, and Nigeria all pledged to send soldiers to Somalia. But none have been deployed. Last week, Burundi said 1,000 of its troops were still waiting for military equipment and money from France and the United States.

Since March, five Ugandan peacekeepers have been killed in the Somali capital in violence blamed largely on insurgents opposed to the interim government and the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia.

In the latest outbreak of violence on Thursday, insurgents and government troops battled with machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades inside Mogadishu's sprawling Bakara Market.

The fighting came just hours ahead of the start of government-hosted reconciliation talks in the capital, which have been postponed numerous times because of the lack of security.

The interim government says the mostly clan-based peace conference is aimed at addressing the root causes of Somalia's instability. It has invited more than 1,300 clan leaders and Somali intellectuals to attend.

Hundreds of other Somalis, including Islamists and civil society leaders, are boycotting the conference. They accuse the government, among other things, of refusing to include opponents in power-sharing deals.