The African Union's peacekeeping force in Somalia has reached 50 percent of authorized strength for the first time, with more reinforcements expected soon.
Senior AU officials are hailing the arrival of the 4,000th peacekeeper in Somalia. The African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM has an authorized strength of 8,000, but has been operating with only 3,500 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers.
A bomb attack that killed 11 Burundian soldiers last month had prompted speculation the troops might be withdrawn. But AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra says the opposite is true. He says negotiations are underway with Rwanda and other troop contributing countries to bring the force up to nearly full strength soon.
"As we speak we are deploying a battalion from Uganda that brings the total strength of AMISOM to 50 percent, for the first time we are above 4,000 so this is quite an achievement ... This is already symbolically very important despite the terrorist acts directed against AMISOM," he said. "The agenda of the day is to strengthen AMISOM not the other way around."
Lamamra expressed annoyance at news reports that Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed is under pressure to order the AMISOM troops home. Speaking on the sidelines of an AU consultative meeting on Somalia, the commissioner said such information is motivated by either ignorance or bad faith.
"Those statements are basically prompted either by genuine ignorance of what the AMISOM role is or by some pre-judged hostile position toward every friendly force that is likely to be there to make sure that Somalia is actually coming out of its crisis and moving forward to reconstitute its government institutions," he said. "So I would not be worried by the statements either way."
Among those attending the conference were Somalia's defense minister, and his counterparts from several other countries in the region.
AU special envoy to Somalia Nicholas Bwakira says there is a strong sense President Sheikh Sharif is making political progress in reaching out to opposition groups that have so far resisted calls to join the rebuilding process.
Bwakira admits security conditions prevent a resumption of humanitarian operations in Mogadishu. A significant portion of Somalia' eight million people have been displaced, and the United Nations estimates three million need aid.
But Bwakira says the evidence indicates a steady improvement.
"The government security forces and other forces supporting the government are challenging al-Shabab, so Shabab is challenged every day," he said. "A few months ago the reason al-Shabab had to attack was the presence of Ethiopian troops. The Ethiopians have now withdrawn. Then they came up with the idea of Sharia, then Sheikh Sharif said, we will implement Sharia, so they have no grounds to fight, so they have really losing ground as the days go [by]."
Officials say a donor conference is set for April 22 in Brussels to raise funds to help Somalia begin rebuilding. Several countries, including the United States, Britain and Turkey have indicated a willingness to contribute.
Somalia Trade Minister Abdirashid Mohamed Irro says he is in consultation with U.S. and European counterparts about re-establishing the country's once lucrative seafood industry. Somalia has Africa's longest seacoast.