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AU Condemns Attacks on Peacekeepers in Somalia


The African Union's special envoy for Somalia has condemned the rise in attacks on AU peacekeepers in the country in the past week. He asserted the right of AU troops to defend themselves, but reinforced the mission's neutrality in the country's conflict. Derek Kilner has more from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

In recent weeks, Somalia's Islamist insurgents, who since early 2007 have been battling the country's transitional government and the Ethiopian troops who back it, have launched a growing number of attacks on African Union peacekeepers in the capital Mogadishu, the center of the insurgency.

A series of attacks last week killed two Ugandan peacekeepers. This week, insurgents attacked the peacekeepers' positions on three consecutive days. While the AU has reported no casualties, the group's special envoy, Nicolas Bwakira, described the attacks as "unprecedented", and the peacekeepers have responded with some of the heaviest firepower they have used since deploying in February, 2007.

Speaking in Nairobi, Bwakira described the insurgent attacks as a deliberate effort to provoke a response from the African forces.

"Available information indicates that these attacks were a calculated move intended to draw AMISOM into direct armed confrontation with the insurgent forces and therefore to appear to be involved directly in the conflict. They were also intended to portray AMISOM as a partisan in the on-going conflict so that its troops could easily become a target and subjected attacks," he said.

The U.N.'s refugee agency said on Friday that over 80 civilians are believed to have been killed in this week's fighting, and 15-thousand people have fled their homes in Mogadishu.

Some residents have described the peacekeepers' shells hitting civilian targets. Bwakira said the peacekeepers reserved the right to defend themselves from insurgent attacks, but pledged that the force would not take sides in the conflict.

"We would like to reiterate in the strongest terms possible that the African Union is not in Somalia to fight or to be drawn into conflict we are not part of, we are there as an impartial and neutral peacekeeping force in order to help Somalis in their quest for peace in their country," he said.

The AU mission has an authorized force of 8,000 but to date only 2,600 troops from Uganda and Burundi have been deployed, and the mission has had little success in stemming the conflict. The AU wants the United Nations to take over responsibility for peacekeeping in Somalia, but the U.N. is unlikely to agree to a mission without a dramatic improvement in security, fearful of getting bogged down in the messy conflict.

Analysts have suggested that the recent targeting of AU forces by insurgents may be a strategy to discourage further foreign intervention in the conflict.