AU peacekeepers tested in Somalia

Four Ugandan troops were killed this week in a bomb blast as Somalia's insurgency intensifies.

Even before a roadside bomb killed four Ugandan peacekeepers in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Wednesday, convincing other African nations to support the mission was a tough sell.

But as fighting in Mogadishu escalates into a full-scale insurgency, creating what the United Nations now calls the world's worst refugee crisis, the likelihood of a strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Somalia has diminished even further.

By providing all of the 1,600 troops of the 8,000 peacekeepers requested for the AU's mission in Somalia, Uganda is bearing a heavy burden for a war that was started by Ethiopia, was supposed to be finished quickly, but now shows no sign of ending.

Like the AU mission in Sudan, the peacekeeping mission in Somalia is seen as a test of Africa's ability to solve its own problems, yet with little funding and unfulfilled commitment of troops, the Somali mission is in danger of failing that test. Unless the Ugandans get relief fast, patience among ordinary Ugandans may fade quickly, and the AU mission could collapse.

Members of the AU, including Burundi, Rwanda, Ghana, and Nigeria, which had all promised to send peacekeepers as soon as funding could be found to support them, are unlikely to send troops "because there is no peace to keep [in Somalia] in the first place," says Richard Cornwell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. "The Ugandans had kept their heads down, built their reputation locally, and were eager to show that they were not replacing the Ethiopians, but saw themselves as the forerunner of a UN peacekeeping operation." Now, however, they are getting caught in the crossfire.

World's worst refugee crisis

The blast against Ugandan peacekeepers comes during the worst level of fighting war-torn Somalia has seen in decades. Recent street battles have displaced up to 400,000 Somalis from their homes and trapped thousands more inside the fighting zones. This week, the UN's chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, called the Somali humanitarian and refugee crisis the worst in the world.

Ugandan Army spokesman Maj. Felix Kulayigye, said that the attack on Ugandan troops – a remote-controlled blast of a roadside bomb on a convoy of Ugandan peacekeepers – was not going to change Uganda's resolve to see the peacekeeping mission through. "We have no plan to change our mission," he told reporters in Kampala. "No plan."

The blast is the first such attack on Ugandan troops, but it has become a regular feature of the fighting of insurgents – mainly members of the ousted Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), together with members of the Hawiye clan who dominate Mogadishu – against Ethiopian troops and forces of Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Ethiopia sent its troops into Somalia on Dec. 25, 2006, to support TFG forces as they pushed the Islamists out of Mogadishu. While Ethiopia originally promised to remove troops within a few weeks, it announced this week that its troops will remain until the AU force reaches at least half-strength.

AU officials announced this week a new peacekeeping fund – nearly $10.2 million donated by the European Union – set up for conflict prevention, but officials admitted that this money is far short of what is required to meet the needs of ongoing peacekeeping missions in both Sudan's Darfur region and Somalia.

Ugandans want their troops home

On the streets of Uganda's capital, Kampala, people reacted strongly to the news of the peacekeepers' deaths – the largest single loss since the troops deployed to Mogadishu on March 6 – with many saying the troops should return home.

"Why should our soldiers suffer for other people?" asks housewife Zaina Mutesi.

"They should withdraw because we have no interest in sending our troops to Somalia. Even if the aims of the mission are valid, the problem is that the soldiers are now dying," says Dr. Joseph Mutyaba, a dentist.

With their own conflicts at home, in both the rebel-affected North and in the pastoral lands of the Northeast, many Ugandans say the government is in danger of overextending its resources by entering Somalia. There is also a widespread belief that President Yoweri Museveni rushed the action in order to bow to American interests, says says Paul Omach, a political analyst at Uganda's Makarere University.

But Ugandan Army Chief General Aronda Nyakairima says the force will "stay put" and wait for the deployment of other countries' troops. "Ugandans won't lose morale in the deployment because it's an African cause and we believe it is our duty as Ugandans to correct what is wrong on our continent," said Major Kulayigye, the Ugandan Army spokesman.

Whether more African countries send peacekeepers or not, it is unlikely that Somalia will see peace anytime soon, says Cornwell.

"We're back to 1993," says Cornwell, referring to the ill-fated US-led UN operation in Somalia, infamous for the "Black Hawk Down" incident. "Even if you do crush the Islamists militarily, if you don't get out pretty quickly, you're looking at an intifada. What the dear old West has created is exactly what it feared: a fertile ground for Islamist extremism."

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