ADDIS ABABA, Jun 2 – Kenyan troops were officially integrated into the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with Kenya’s defence minister signing an agreement at AU headquarters on Saturday.
“We conclude the process of establishing a formal, legal framework for the integration of the Kenyan defence forces into AMISOM,” Minister of Defence Yusuf Haji said at the signing in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Kenyan tanks and troops rolled into Somalia in October following a series of kidnappings and attacks on Kenyan soil believed to have been carried out by Shabaab insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda.
In December, the AU said it backed the integration of Kenyan troops into its peacekeeping mission.
AU peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra welcomed the official integration and said it marked progress towards defeating Shabaab militants in Somalia.
“We are really opening a new chapter -a chapter that will take us closer to… the completion of the mission in Somalia,” he said.
It was not clear how many Kenyan soldiers would be coming under the AMISOM umbrella but some sources gave a figure of 4,000-5,000 men, boosting the force now made up of some 11,000 Burundians and Ugandans by almost half.
The re-hatting of Kenyan troops comes three days after they took the Shabaab-controlled town of Afmadow, a long-term target ever since they entered Somalia.
Haji said they were inching closer to capturing the strategic port city of Kismayu, but he did not specify a timeline.
“We are not very far from Kismayu, but we can’t say when we are taking over,” he said, adding that although the rebels still posed a threat, they had lost strength.
“They have been diminished and also their command structure has been destroyed on the ground, but you can never rule out a few remnants of al-Shabaab here and there. But we are very hopeful that at the end of the day AMISOM will end the war in Somalia,” he said.
Lamamra added that AMISOM still faces a number of logistical challenges and urged the United Nations to maintain support for the mission.
“Now that AMISOM is expanding, now that we are covering the entire territory, we do have more challenges. In particular, what relates to logistics, we need our friends in the UN to be able to supply all what is needed,” he said.
Somalia has been embroiled in civil war since 1991, when former president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted.
It has been variously governed by ruthless warlords and militia groups and a fragile transitional government which holds official power in the Horn of Africa country.
After a two-day conference on Somalia held in Istanbul, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called Friday for urgent international aid to head off the risk of warlords exploiting a power vacuum after a scheduled change of government in August.