MOGADISHU - African Union peacekeeping troops will start withdrawing from Somalia next month, says the head of the AU mission in the country.
Francisco Madeira told a news conference in Mogadishu that 1,000 soldiers from the five troop-contributing countries — Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti — will depart.
“As a result of this, troop movements have started in different parts of the country and will continue for the coming weeks," Madeira said Tuesday. "This is a process of realignment to effect the reduction in numbers and also begin the handover process of national security responsibilities to the Somali national security forces.”
Members of the AU mission, known as AMISOM, have warned for over a year they may pull their troops from Somalia. AMISOM has been helping Somali governments battle militant group al-Shabab since 2007.
Madeira said the withdrawal will be conducted with caution to ensure that the security of the Somali people is not comprised.
“Our drawdown and transition must be gradual, conditions-based, responsible and done in a manner that does not compromise the safety and security of the Somali people,” he said.
He said, "We’ll exit this place when the SNA [Somali National Army] is ready to take over, when the SNA feel that we can now leave."
The announcement to reduce troops comes a day after AMISOM announced an operation to flush out al-Shabab militants from the Lower Shabelle region and secure main supply routes in the area.
Paul Williams, an associate professor at George Washington University who is writing a book about AMISOM, says the troop reduction was not unexpected.
“The plan was always to reduce by 1,000 troops and add an additional 500 police by December 31st, 2017. Then there would be additional reductions and potentially reconfigurations by October 2018,” he said.
New military offensive
Madeira reiterated that AMISOM will be part of the much publicized offensive against al-Shabab in collaboration with the Somali National Army.
“We as AMISOM are aware of these preparations and we are going to work side by side with the government to defeat al-Shabab,” he said. “We are going to fight al-Shabab in all fronts, I’m not going to tell you which specific fronts so that al-Shabab does not run away from there but you will be seeing.”
Madeira said areas of upcoming operations will include Mogadishu and its surroundings, and urged the public to support the troops.
“Even if tomorrow or this afternoon or the day after tomorrow you see some other bombs blasting here in Mogadishu don’t worry because we are dealing with an invisible enemy and it has infiltrated some of these places but this is going to be stopped,” he said.
No additional Ethiopian troops
Madeira, who is from Mozambique, denied media reports that additional Ethiopian troops entered Somalia. He said troops who entered Somalia last week were just part of a routine rotational exercise.
“It just happens that troops that come from Uganda fly in, but the troops that come from Ethiopia, they can come through the border, because they can just drive, and people with other intentions are saying Ethiopians are amassing into Somalia," he said.
The president of Somalia recently visited Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti, seeking support for the promised offensive against al-Shabab.
The government promised the offensive following the deadly October 14 truck bomb explosion in Mogadishu that killed 358 people, with 56 others missing and presumed dead.