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Calm in Mogadishu Encourages AU to Upgrade Peace Mission

African Union officials, encouraged by the calm in Mogadishu in recent days, are preparing to double the size of the A.U. peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The departure of Ethiopian troops is creating new hope for stability in a country seen as practically ungovernable for nearly two decades.

Teams from the African Union, the United Nations and countries contributing troops to the A.U. peacekeeping force AMISOM meeting Saturday were cautiously optimistic about Somalia's chances of emerging from 18 years of virtual anarchy.

A day after the U.N. Security Council expressed its intention to take over peacekeeping duties in Somalia in the near future, A.U. officials spoke confidently of assembling an 8,000 strong force and having it ready for U.N. command by June.

AMISOM is currently manned by about 3,500 soldiers from Burundi and Uganda. Both countries say they will increase their troop commitments. Nigeria is said to be offering one, and possibly three battalions, and AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told reporters at least three other African countries are ready to pledge troops.

Lamamra says efforts to put additional peacekeepers on the ground received a big boost from the newly-approved Security Council resolution, which offers financial backing for the operation. "It is a good step forward. We will be building on that, and we have technical delegation from the U.N. sitting with us at this meeting. This technical mission is here as part of the implementation of that resolution So we are very much eager to move quickly to implement that resolution, meaning to get the comprehensive logistical support from the UN as soon as possible,, and then to build on that support and move quickly to establishment of a U.N. full-fledged peacekeeping operation," he said.

Lamamra said Somalia's fragile transitional government also appears to be gaining strength. Somali representatives at Saturday's meeting says a new transitional president will be in place by January 26 to replace Abdullahi Yusuf, who resigned last month.

A.U. and United Nations officials have also expressed annoyance at news reports suggesting Islamist militants and other forces opposed to the transitional government had taken over posts in Mogadishu vacated by departing Ethiopian troops.

Commissioner Lamamra said those positions had been occupied by the moderate opposition ARS, or Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, which has signed an accord with the government. Lamamra admitted security remains fragile, but dismissed suggestions that fighters from the militant al-Shabab group were poised to fill a security vacuum in the Somali capital. "Most of those are misleading. Al-Shabab have not taken any significant positions in Mogadishu. Those are ARS affiliated paramilitary units which have taken some of those positions together with the transitional government forces which have taken other positions. So Shabab has no significant presence in those areas," he said.

AMISOM force commander, Ugandan Major General Francis Okello said he was encouraged that some of Mogadishu's estimated one million displaced people were beginning to return. He credited Somalia's clan elders with creating an environment where there is hope for peace. "The security situation in Mogadishu is very calm. For three days running there have been no attacks so far either on the TFG or AMISOM or the ARS forces, so the security situation so far is good. And this is attributed to the efforts of the leaders of society, clan elders and sub-clan elders, who have come out openly in support of the peace process," he said.

General Okello also pointed to Friday's massive demonstration in Mogadishu's main stadium, attended by more than 11,000 people calling for an end to violence. Though many diplomats and analysts fear al-Shabab fighters might try to stage a spectacular attack in the coming days, Okello said the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops changed the atmosphere in the Somali capital, and set the stage for more of the city's residents to return home.