The United States Tuesday urged greater international support for African Union peacekeeping in Somalia. The State Department appeal came as senior U.S., European and African diplomats convened in Cairo to discuss the worsening violence in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
U.S. officials are making a new push for international backing for the AU force amid growing violence in Somalia that is increasingly directed at Ethiopian troops who intervened in December.
The U.N. Security Council last year authorized the establishment of an 8,000 member Somalia protection force by the African Union and the East African regional grouping IGAD.
But the force remains undersubscribed, leaving the Ethiopians, who had hoped to remain in the country only a matter of weeks, bearing the main peacekeeping burden.
The peacekeeping issue is a major focus of the meeting that convened in Cairo Tuesday of the international Somalia contact group, including the United States and key African and European Union countries.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said reconciliation across the political spectrum in Somalia is a prerequisite for any hope of the country emerging from what he termed the morass of violence that has afflicted it for years.
But he also said the United States is encouraging all possible support for the African Union so that its Somalia mission, now consisting only of about 1,300 Ugandan troops, can be expanded to the point where it can replace the Ethiopians without leaving a security gap:
"Currently the Ethiopians are still in Somalia, they're in Mogadishu, and they have expressed their desire not to have long-term presence there," he explained. "Certainly that is important that they leave at some point. It's also important that they don't leave a vacuum when they depart. So in order for that to happen you need to have credible AU forces that can handle the mission in Mogadishu, and that's really what we were looking at in this conference."
McCormack said the Ethiopians should not remain in Somalia any longer than needed.
But he also said a premature departure could lead to chaos, and said the international community must not abandon the transitional Somali government that took over in Mogadishu after the Ethiopians routed the radical Islamic Courts movement at year's end.
The Islamic forces have since regrouped and along with clan-based factions have been staging attacks against Ethiopian and government forces in the capital. Violence in recent days has driven tens of thousands of people from Mogadishu and been described as some of the worst fighting in 15 years.
The U.S. delegation to the Cairo meeting is led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer.
The Somalia contact group is expected to endorse a reconciliation conference planned for Mogadishu April 16, though there are doubts the capital can be adequately secured in time for the meeting to go forward.