* African leaders to discuss change of AMISOM mandate
* AU says has requested five attack helicopters for AMISOM
ADDIS ABABA, Jan 29 (Reuters) - The African Union’s (AU) peacekeeping force in Somalia is ready to attack militants bent on toppling the government should it receive authorisation from the United Nations, the head of the body said on Saturday.
A senior AU source said African leaders would discuss on Sunday whether to lodge a formal request with the United Nations to change the mandate to an attacking one from peacekeeping.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed over the past four years in fighting that has seen the rebels seize control of about half the capital Mogadishu and swathes of southern and central Somalia.
Western spy agencies say the country has becom a haven for foreign jihadists and Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels claimed responsibility for bombs in Uganda that killed scores in July.
“We are ready to attack if we have permission from the United Nations’ Security Council,” Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, told a news conference in Ethiopia.
Ping said the AU had requested five helicopters for AMISOM.
The senior AU source said these would be helicopter gunships and their addition to AMISOM’S armoury would significantly bolster its attack capabilities.
Ping also said Guinea had committed to deploying one or two batallions to the lawless country. Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved an extra 4,000 peacekeepers for Somalia to bolster the 8,000-strong force in Mogadishu.
“In the coming months, we have to move to that ceiling of 12,000 troops,” said Ping.
Uganda, which forms the backbone of AMISOM, has said it could contribute all the soldiers needed to take the force up to the AU’s desired level of 20,000 but is looking for someone else to foot the bill.
Horn of Africa analysts say the rebels would have likely ousted Somalia’s interim government, whose mandate ends in August, had it not been supported by AMISOM troops.
The U.N. acknowleged this week the government would miss the deadline to adopt a new constitution and hold general elections, raising questions over how to form the next administration. (Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by David Clarke/Maria Golovnina)