A hastily-called summit of East African leaders has ordered the immediate dispatch of 2,000 additional troops to Somalia to reinforce the beleaguered African Union peacekeeping mission.
Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed made an urgent plea to an extraordinary summit of East Africa's Intergovernmental Authority on Development, known as IGAD.
Speaking through an interpreter, the Somali leader said his fragile government is facing its most dangerous phase from al-Qaida-linked insurgents who control much of the country.
"The Somali state is facing a very hard attack from the terrorist groups, which are allied with al-Qaida," Mr. Ahmed said. And the delay in supporting Somali government gives time and support to the other side to be strong. The Somali government with what is in its hand is not able to face the challenges of the terrorist attacks."
Within hours, the leaders of Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda responded with a pledge of immediate military assistance to strengthen the African Union mission known as AMISOM.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin read the summit communique: "Decides to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers under AMISOM to Somalia immediately ... and decides to work with all parties including AMISOM and the U.N. Security Council to raise 20,000 troops to be deployed throughout the country."
There was no immediate word on where the additional troops would come from. AMISOM has an authorized strength of 8,000, but has not been able to attract more than 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops.
Diplomats say all the reinforcements will come from IGAD members, raising the possibility that troops from neighboring countries such as Ethiopia might be included. Ethiopia sent several-thousand troops to support the Somali transitional government in 2006, but they withdrew two years later after many Somalis objected, calling the Ethiopian presence an obstacle to peace.
Aware of Somalis' hostility to Ethiopian intervention, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution discouraging neighboring countries from sending troops.
But IGAD Executive Secretary Mahboub Maalin tells VOA there is nothing to prevent the inclusion of Ethiopian forces in a regional contribution to AMISOM. "Why shouldn't they be? If the heads of state think IGAD needs to mobilize 2,000 troops and Ethiopia is a key member of IGAD, so what? Why do you have to exclude them?" he stated.
Maalin says he expects the 2,000 additional AMISOM troops to be in Somalia within weeks. "It was directed that the troops be dispatched immediately after the summit. In IGAD, when we talk about immediate, we mean immediate immediate, and therefore, the troops are not going to be troops that require training," he said. "These are troops already serving in various member states."
The urgent summit was called following increased clashes between al-Qaida backed militants and Somali government forces backed by AMISOM. As many as 40 people, mostly civilians, were reported killed in fighting in Mogadishu during the past week.
IGAD officials estimated 200,000 Mogadishu residents have fled their homes since the beginning of this year as fighting intensified.