AU in Somalia to plan peace force, gov’t hunts arms

MOGADISHU (Reuters) — African Union officials arrived in Somalia to finalise plans for a peacekeeping force as government troops searched for weapons in the latest push to bring back order after weeks of war, an official said on Sunday.

Somalia’s interim government wants African peacekeepers to be deployed after its troops, backed by heavily armed Ethiopian forces, ousted Islamists in a lightning December offensive.

“They came to meet with government officials in order to discuss how the African Union troops could be deployed,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari, told a news conference.

“They will visit several places in the country… and they’ll meet with senior government security officials. We hope the African troops will be deployed as soon as possible.” The government wants to install itself in Mogadishu, one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and faces a huge challenge to bring peace and security to a nation without effective rule since dictator Mohammad Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.

It is seeking to disarm residents of a city awash with guns and Dinari said government forces had searched houses in the northern Arafat area and seized AK-47s, grenades and explosives. He said seven gangsters in another area were arrested.

“The operations were aimed at improving security in the capital city,” Dinari said at Villa Somalia, the Barre’s former presidential compound.

Resident Mohammed Abdullahi said he saw dozens of government and Ethiopian troops in the area, and that some Somali soldiers had searched a hospital.

“I saw over 50 government troops walking towards Arafat Hospital. After a few minutes they emerged carrying guns,” he said. Others said the arms were later returned to the clinic.

The searches came a day after Somalia’s parliament declared a three-month state of emergency. The law prohibits unauthorised protests and bans possession of weapons by civilians.

Recreate fiefdoms

Residents fear Mogadishu could slide back into the kind of anarchy that gripped the city after 1991 and are waiting to see whether the government can impose the relative stability they experienced under the Islamists’ strict six-month rule.

Warlords agreed on Friday to merge their forces into a new national army to tame the chaotic nation but deadly fighting outside where they met showed how hard that task will be.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council agreed this week to increase the number of troops from a proposed 8,000-strong deployment and called on the international community to fund the peace mission.

Uganda is ready to provide the first battalion, but awaits its parliament’s approval. Kenya, chair of regional body IGAD, has sent top officials to several African nations to seek support for the force.

Kenyan officials told Reuters that President Mwai Kibaki had sent his senior ministers to Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Tunisia and Algeria.

Ethiopia wants to withdraw its soldiers in the coming weeks. But diplomats fear that would leave the government vulnerable to remnants of the Islamists vowing guerrilla war. Somalia’s stability is also under threat from competing clans and some warlords seeking to re-create their fiefdoms.

“Now that the AU team has come, this clearly shows that the Ethiopian troops will leave the country in two to three weeks or after a month,” Dinari said.

Washington launched an air strike on southern Somalia on Monday, which officials said was aimed at Al Qaeda suspects accused of bombing two US embassies and an Israeli-owned hotel in east Africa.

The strike was the United States’ first overt military involvement in Somalia since a disastrous peacekeeping mission ended in 1994.

It killed up to 10 Al Qaeda allies, but missed its main target of three top suspects, the US government said.

Washington denies carrying out any further strikes.

“We requested the Americans to survey our air and sea,” Dinari said, adding there were no US forces on the ground in Somalia. “The American government has a right to look for terrorists who bombed its embassies.”

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