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E. Africa Summit Mulls Strategy for Crushing Somalia Extremist Group

A Kenyan soldier guards an airstrip in an area near the Somali-Kenyan border where al-Shabab militants are active (file photo).

Leaders of six East African countries will meet Friday to consider ways of stepping up the military campaign aimed at crushing Somalia's embattled al-Shabab extremist group. The leaders see United Nations support as the key to breaking al-Shabab's stranglehold on famine-ravaged regions of south and central Somalia.

Heads of state of IGAD, the Inter Governmental Authority on Development, are gathering in the Ethiopian capital in hopes of reinvigorating the Somalia offensive.

They see the African Union peacekeeping force, AMISOM, continuing to solidify control of the capital, Mogadishu. The impending arrival of reinforcements, along with a coalition of clan militias and transitional government troops, is expected to allow the Somali government to gradually expand the territory it holds.

Kenyan forces in the south are said to be making slow progress, though their campaign, now more than a month long, has been hampered by bad weather and logistical challenges.

Diplomats and military analysts, however, say any hope of driving al-Shabab out of Somalia will require so-called “mission enablers." These are the helicopters, fighter jets and tanks that dramatically increase fighting capability.

To get these, the anti-Shabab coalition needs outside help, including a United Nations Security Council decision to enhance AMISOM's mandate. Monica Juma, Kenya's ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, says the IGAD leaders will make the case that urgent Security Council action is essential.

"It is not useful to just talk numbers of people. Unless you are having people that are having air cover, sea cover, it is very difficult to map a land operation without the right equipment. So this discussion around troops must go hand-in-hand with a discussion around mission enablers and equipment and the right resources and so forth," she said.

The East African countries are also expected to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for cutting al-Shabab's supply lines through the strategic port of Kismayo, the rebel stronghold. Some U.N. powers have been reluctant to authorize anything that might be seen as a blockade of the port, which is considered an act of war.

But Ambassador Juma argues cutting off al-Shabab's supplies is essential to the success of the operation. "It will be impossible to deal with this challenge unless the supply lines to al-Shabab are cut out, and these have to do with their control of Kismayo. We believe this is possible, and we are hoping the U.N. Security Council will respond in the affirmative in this case," she said.

Pre-summit talks have also centered on the possible return of Ethiopian troops to Somalia as part of the anti-Shabab coalition. A previous two-year incursion backfired when the Ethiopians were portrayed as Christian invaders into Muslim Somalia, prompting a surge of support for al-Shabab.

Numerous recent news reports quote witnesses as saying hundreds of Ethiopian troops have already moved several kilometers inside the border. Military analysts say many more are massed on the Ethiopian side.

Ethiopia, which holds the chairmanship of IGAD and is hosting this summit, is seen as a major driver behind the push to crush al-Shabab.

But Ethiopia's foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti says there has been no decision on joining the anti-Shabab campaign. "It's not true that Ethiopians have crossed over to Somali territory. Ethiopians are on the border, the border is porous and sometimes it's very difficult to notice where the soldiers are, but the truth of the matter is as of now, Ethiopian troops are within their borders," he said.

African diplomats say Ethiopia is resisting pressure to join AMISOM, though Kenyan forces are likely to do so.

Spokesman Dina, however, says whatever action regional leaders decide on at the summit, swift action will be needed, including from the United Nations. He said, “there should be no procrastination. Swift, decisive action is needed."