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Pressure piles on peacekeepers

MOGADISHU, Sep 19 – Islamist insurgents vowed to pursue their campaign until African Union peacekeepers leave Somalia, a day after sending the force reeling from twin suicide attacks on its headquarters.

A Somali minister warned Friday that the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab had six more UN-tagged cars like the two they used to slam explosives into the Mogadishu base, killing 21 people, including 17 peacekeepers.

Even as Somalia’s embattled government and its AU protectors braced for more attacks by insurgents decrying a foreign crusade, top officials called for a fresh injection of international assistance.

"We know the group is still planning more attacks using UN-marked vehicles they looted from UN compounds," State Minister for Defence Sheikh Yusuf Indahhade said at a press conference in the Somali capital.

"The overall number of vehicles they looted is eight. So far they have used two in the suicide attack (yesterday). We know they are saving the rest for more attacks," he said.

On July 20, the Shebab raided UN offices in central and southern Somalia.

For two years, the Shebab and its allies focused their war effort against Ethiopia’s presence. But since Ethipoian troops pulled out in January, the militias have made AMISOM’s departure their priority, accusing the peacekeepers of being the foreguard of a Christian crusade.

With the country embroiled in permanent strife pitting a complex patchwork of factions with multiple and changing allegiances against each other, the African force has struggled to make any impact.

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Its main function has been to act as the last lifeline of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s administration, mainly patrolling a limited perimeter around key institutions in the capital.

AMISOM has nevertheless been drawn into the conflict, often exchanging heavy mortar fire with rebel militias targeting its bases from densely-populated urban areas.

While the Shebab is believed to enjoy only limited support in the Somali population, the civilian casualties caused by AMISOM fire have all but dashed that force’s own hopes of building local credibility.

"We call on Christian nations whose governments are sending their sons to Somalia to stop… We warned you before and we are warning you now: don’t send them to hell in Somalia," said Shebab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage.

The AU’s special representative for Somalia, Nicolas Bwakira, nevertheless urged the pan-African organisation’s member states to make good on a pledge to deploy 8,000 troops, almost twice AMISOM’s current strength.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Thursday’s twin attacks — which left five Ugandan troops, 12 Burundians and four Somali soldiers dead — in "the strongest terms" but Bwakira urged the world to do more.

"We are not happy with what we have today. We need more financial support, we need more human support, technical support, and in the area of the security," he said.

A senior official close to the AU Commission — the continental body’s executive arm — voiced fears that the worst attack on AMISOM since its March 2007 deployment could dampen the resolve of potential troop contributors.

"There is a risk that member states will be afraid of coming to reinforce AMISOM," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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Sierra Leone and Malawi are due to send police forces, Nigeria’s pledged battalion is dragging its feet and Ghana reneged on its promise to dispatch troops.

Somali state defence minister Indahhade reiterated an offer to negotiate with the Shebab and their allies in the insurgency.

The Shebab have consistently refused to enter talks, demanding the unconditional departure of African peacekeepers and accusing President Sharif — an Islamist cleric — of selling out to the West.

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