, KAMPALA, Jul 27 – African Union leaders wrapping up a three-day summit Tuesday in Kampala agreed to send thousands of extra troops to reinforce its military contingent battling Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Somalia.
More than 30 heads of state approved a request by an east African regional body to send 2,000 extra soldiers to the war-torn capital Mogadishu.
However, the leaders were still grappling with whether to completely change the mandate of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), currently tasked with protecting the fragile Somali government from the Islamist rebels.
"This summit has just approved the requests made by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD)," Ethiopia\’s Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told AFP.
The IGAD earlier this month pledged to send the additional troops to boost AMISOM\’s current force of 6,000 Burundian and Ugandan soldiers to its intended full strength.
The permanent secretary of Uganda\’s foreign ministry James Mugume said the summit was yet to agree on whether to give the force a more aggressive mandate under chapter seven of the UN charter.
"The decision about the mandate is still being taken, but I think there is a realisation that chapter seven is difficult," Mugume told AFP.
"What we are hoping for is chapter six and a half. It involves an adjustment in the rules of engagement that allows us to act more robustly.
"A change to six and a half would still require consultations with the UN Security Council," he explained.
Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kulayigye however said that AMISOM could now launch pre-emptive strikes following new rules of engagement.
"Now the forces are free to attack in a pre-emptive manner," Kulayigye told AFP. "If there is a realisation that you are about to be attacked you are mandated to attack first."
Somalia\’s hardline Shebab militia fighting to topple the Western-backed government of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed demonstrated their new regional dimension when they claimed July 11 bombings in Kampala that killed 76 people.
They said the attack was to punish Uganda for its contribution to the AMISOM force, which the insurgents blame for killing civilians in Mogadishu.
The Ethiopian foreign minister urged the immediate deployment of the additional forces.
"We all think that AMISOM must be reinforced immediately, along with the means of action of the Somali transitional government," Seyoum said.
However, leaders at the Kampala summit acknowledged that military intervention alone would not resolve Somalia\’s conflict which has raged for nearly two decades.
"The priority must therefore be to reinforce the security forces, the police, and the civil and financial institutions of the transitional government," Seyoum added.
The Shebab, whose leadership has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, currently controls around 80 percent of the Horn of Africa nation, with the embattled government confined to a few blocks in Mogadishu.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson supported the AMISOM troop surge as a means of defeating the radical militia posing a regional and international threat.
"There is no doubt there is a need for more troops," Carson said. "We in Washington have committed ourselves to support additional troops on the ground in the same fashion that we have supported Burundi and Ugandan troops."
African Union Commission chief Jean Ping said earlier that Guinea was ready to send a battalion to Somalia and predicted that the mission could soon swell to 10,000 soldiers.
The bloc\’s commissioner for peace and security, Ramtane Lamamra, said it was only "a question of a few short weeks" before the reinforcements arrive in Somalia and render AMISOM — which deployed in March 2007 — "more robust".
South Africa — which has been requested to send warships to prevent the Shebab from importing weapons via Somalia\’s Kismayo port — said it would be ready to do "everything it is asked from it" by IGAD and the African Union.