UNITED NATIONS - The top U.N. official for Somalia said Wednesday that while al-Shabab remains a serious threat, the terror group is on the decline, and the continued deployment of African Union troops in Somalia is essential to its ultimate defeat.
"Al-Shabab remains a potent threat, despite — or perhaps precisely because — it is on the back foot as a result of financial pressures, counterterrorism operations and airstrikes," U.N. envoy Michael Keating told Security Council members.
A truck bomb attack Oct. 14 in the capital city of Mogadishu killed more than 500 civilians and demonstrated the al-Qaida-linked group's ability to stage a large-scale attack, despite an intensive military offensive against them.
Keating said defeating the group requires both a military and political strategy and serious efforts to address issues that terrorists exploit, such as corruption and the lack of jobs and education opportunities for youth.
The more than 22,000-strong African Union force, known as AMISOM, receives a logistical support package from the United Nations, and gets additional funding from the European Union.
"AMISOM's continued presence will therefore be essential," Keating said. "Premature drawdown of AMISOM forces will be a gift to al-Shabab and risks undermining the gains that have been made, at great human and financial cost, over the last decade."
But Keating acknowledged that it is not viable for the force to stay indefinitely, and said the Somali security sector needs to prepare for a gradual handover of responsibility.
Somalia's U.N. envoy, Abukar Dahir Osman, urged council members to ease the arms embargo in place for more than two decades on the country.
"The existing arms embargo framework on Somalia is a major obstacle to an effective implementation of our ambitious security sector reform," Osman said.
The government has previously argued that the embargo needs to be fully lifted so the army can get the heavy weapons it needs to defeat al-Shabab.
Keating also warned of potential violence between two autonomous regions in the country.
"There is a serious danger that long-standing disputes between Puntland and Somaliland, and in particular an armed standoff in Sool, could erupt into violence in the coming days, with potentially grave consequences," he said.
Both regions claim Sool as their own, which has previously led to violence.
The country is also grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis. Persistent drought and conflict have left 6.2 million people in need of assistance. More than 2 million people have been displaced from their homes.
"The risk of famine still looms," Keating warned.
The U.N. is seeking $1.6 billion to cope with the crisis this year.