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Ugandan Peacekeepers to Stay in Somalia

Uganda, whose troops make up about half of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, says its soldiers will stay in the troubled country even if Ethiopia pulls out its forces at the end of the year as expected. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu has more from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Ugandan military spokesman Major Paddy Ankunda told VOA that Kampala has no plans to withdraw any of its peacekeeping troops from Somalia before its current mandate from the African Union expires early next year.

"Ugandan troops will remain in Somalia because we still have an African Union mandate. We also think that we still have a role to assist the Somali people regain their state and their freedom. So, we shall stay there," he said.

Ethiopia's announcement last week that it plans to withdraw thousands of its troops from Somalia by December 31 has put renewed pressure on the African Union to find additional peacekeepers for the mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM.

The mission was formed in January, 2007 to help secure the Somali capital Mogadishu and to aid reconstruction following Ethiopia's military intervention in Somalia a month earlier to oust the country's Islamic Courts Union.

Ethiopia left thousands of its troops in Somalia to protect the secular, U.N.-recognized-but-weak interim government. But almost immediately, the presence of Ethiopian troops triggered a bloody Islamist-led insurgency in Mogadishu and elsewhere in the country.

The anti-government, anti-Ethiopian violence dampened support for the mission among many African countries and for more than a year, Uganda was the only country to contribute troops to AMISOM.

The mission now has about 3,500 troops from Uganda and Burundi. But it is still far short of the 8,000 it was originally mandated to have. Ugandan military officials have said that security in Mogadishu is so poor, the mission actually needs about 17,000 more troops to expand AMISOM's reach in the capital.

Uganda and Burundi officials are due to meet next week to discuss the implications of the Ethiopian withdrawal.

Since March 2007, AMISOM troops have been repeatedly attacked and are able to patrol only a small area in and around Mogadishu's airport and seaport.

The expected departure of Ethiopian troops, meanwhile, has emboldened Islamists to intensify their attacks, especially in Baidoa where the interim parliament is based. A string of bombings last week and on Sunday that killed and wounded dozens of people have been blamed on Islamist insurgents.

Somalia's interim Prime Minister Nur Adde Hassan Hussein expressed hope that Ethiopia would not withdraw its troops before a robust international peacekeeping force is in place. Somalis and Western observers said the government is in danger of collapsing without Ethiopia's backing.

But Islamist groups, who have regained control of most parts of southern and central Somalia in recent months and are anticipating an imminent takeover of the country, are vehemently opposed to AMISOM and the possible deployment of U.N. troops in Somalia.

The African Union on Tuesday confirmed that a peacekeeper from Burundi was killed in an overnight attack in Mogadishu. The African Union condemned the attack and said it is determined to remain calm and focused on its mission in Somalia.