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African Union Training Somalis to Counter Insurgency

The African Union's special envoy to Somalia says the AU has begun recruiting and training Somalis to be soldiers and police officers to help the country's embattled government counter an insurgency led by Islamists with ties to al-Qaida. He says the pan-African body envisions a Somali security force of about 16,000 members in a year's time.

The envoy, Nicholas Bwakira, says the ambitious recruiting and training program for Somalia is a part of the pledge of assistance the United States, the European Union and other key donors made in April at a meeting in Brussels.

More than $200 million was pledged at the conference, much of it earmarked to support Somalia's transitional government's security forces and the 4,300-member African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM.

"We plan to train 6,000 paramilitary forces and 10,000 policemen," Bwakira said. "This training will be taking place outside Somalia. But some of the training will be done in Somalia. There are already some trainees, who are in Djibouti. So, it already has started and it is going to continue in various countries. We are looking at training time-frame of six to 12 months."

Bwakira says Botswana, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and Uganda are some of the African nations that have volunteered to train Somali recruits.

Somalia's U.N.-supported transitional federal government is led by an Islamist, Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who once fought against the government because it was being propped up by Somalia's traditional enemy, Ethiopia. Ethiopia ended a deeply unpopular, two-year occupation of Somalia in January after President Sharif and his opposition faction agreed to join the government.

But hardline Islamists, led by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group, have refused to reconcile with President Sharif and have intensified the insurgency against the government and AMISOM in recent months. Somali officials say the government is too weak to fight the insurgents, who are now being backed by foreign fighters. The government has appealed for immediate international help.

Western analysts say the African Union and donor countries are under pressure to come up with a solution that will allow the African Union to reduce, not increase, the number of peacekeepers in Somalia. But they also face enormous challenges in trying to mold a Somali security force that will remain loyal to the government.

There are reports that as many as half of the Somali government's 3,700-member security force - some who had previously received training from Ethiopia - have quit since the beginning of the year. Some are believed to have been absorbed into clan-based militias and others are said to have run away after selling their weapons to insurgents, including al-Shabab fighters.

A researcher for Human Rights Watch, Tom Porteous, warns that any program to train Somali security forces must also include mechanisms to prevent and to adequately address charges of human rights abuses, if and when they occur.

"It is absolutely essential that any training that is given to TFG forces, whether they are paramilitary forces or police forces, should include a very strong human rights component," Porteous said. "They need to take into account the security of civilians, not just the security of the TFG. Lack of regard for human rights, the lack of regard for the rules of the laws of war in combat operations ultimately is self-defeating."

In 2007, donor countries, through the United Nations Development Program, trained and paid the salaries of hundreds of Somali policemen. Many of them were subsequently charged with committing human rights violations against civilians - charges that were never investigated.

Human Rights Watch says the Somali police and the international community lost credibility with the Somali people and helped the insurgents gain more popular support.