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Somalis Protest Against Deployment of More Foreign Troops

Somalis in regions controlled by Islamist extremists have staged protests against plans by an East African regional bloc to send 2,000 additional peacekeepers to Somalia.

Witnesses say hundreds of people in al-Shabab-controlled towns in Lower Jubba, Hiran, Gedo, Middle Shabelle, and Bay regions protested IGAD's plan to send more troops to Somalia under the African Union peacekeeping mission known as AMISOM.

Al-Shabab officials led the demonstrations, vowing to redouble their fight against what they described as "enemies of the country and Islam."

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development - IGAD -- is composed of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. Eritrea is also in the bloc, but its membership is suspended.

IGAD has not said which countries would contribute troops or give a specific deployment date, but a U.N. resolution currently bans Somalia's neighbors - Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti -- from contributing troops to the African Union mission.

If additional peacekeepers are sent, Uganda, which already has 4,000 troops in Somalia serving as peacekeepers, is expected to provide the bulk of reinforcements. But residents in Mogadishu tell VOA that there is deep concern that troops from Ethiopia may be included.

One resident, who declined to be identified, says he is disappointed that Somali President Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who once led an Islamist faction that fought against Ethiopia's military's intervention in Somalia between 2007 and 2008, is appealing for help from Addis Ababa.

He says the Ethiopian occupation started the conflict that is still destroying people's lives. He says the troops also did not behave well and they will not be welcomed by anyone in Somalia.

Ethiopia intervened in Somalia in late 2006 to oust the Islamic Courts Union, which Ethiopia and its western allies feared was turning Somalia into a haven for extremists and terrorists. A U.N.-sponsored deal signed in Djibouti in June 2008 brought moderate Islamists into the transitional government and paved the way for an Ethiopian withdrawal in early 2009.

But by then, al-Shabab, which functioned as the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union, had grown stronger, partly on an anti-Ethiopian nationalist platform that drew scores of supporters. It gained control of vast amount of territory in southern Somalia and hemmed the government into a few blocks of the capital.

IGAD heads of state attending an extraordinary summit on Monday in Addis Ababa reacted with alarm after President Sharif reported that al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaida, is gaining the upper hand in its efforts to topple the U.N.-supported Transitional Federal Government.

For months, African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi have been battling to keep the capital from falling into insurgent hands. But Somalis say the peacekeepers frequently return fire indiscriminately, causing as much harm to civilians as the insurgents.

The weak government is beset by internal divisions and lacks broad-based support in the country. Parliament member and a critic of Mr. Sharif's administration, Mohamed Amin Osman, says he believes sending more foreign troops to prop up an unpopular government will only increase support for al-Shabab.

"A solution cannot be made by international intervention. Somalia needs their own militias, their own local people to take part against al-Shabab and to defeat al-Shabab. Otherwise, the whole of the Horn of Africa will grow insecure," Osman said.

Somalis have suffered through endless cycles of conflict since the fall of the last functioning government in 1991. The United Nations calls the humanitarian crisis in the country a "catastrophe."