NAIROBI/MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The leaders of Kenya, Uganda and Somalia agreed to intensify efforts to defeat Islamist fighters in Somalia on Wednesday, at their first meeting since Kenya sent in troops to crush the militants.
The Nairobi meeting followed fresh night-time mortar attacks on the Somali capital Mogadishu by al Shabaab insurgents, highlighting the challenges President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed faces in restoring stability.
Kenya deployed hundreds of soldiers across its porous frontier five weeks ago, blaming al Shabaab for a wave of kidnappings on Kenyan soil.
In the last week, senior Kenyan government ministers have shuttled around the region and travelled to the Gulf to drum up political and financial support for a coordinated campaign to rout the al Qaeda-linked rebels.
“The meeting emphasized the need for enhancing coordination between AMISOM, TFG forces and Kenya Defence forces in order to successfully defeat al Shabaab,” said Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula, who briefed reporters after the leaders’ meeting.
Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, said it had offered to add to the more than 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers who are propping up the shaky Western-backed Somali government. It did not specify how many.
The Somali government now controls virtually the entire capital for the first time since the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre in 1991 allowed first warlords, then Islamist militants, to step into the political vacuum.
But Ahmed’s administration has virtually no control over the rest of the anarchic country.
Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Ahmed called on other African countries to fulfill their pledges to bolster the regional peacekeeping force.
“The joint Kenya-Somalia operation presents the region with a historic opportunity to restore stability and security in Somalia,” Wetangula said.
Kenya is the latest in a string of foreign powers to send in soldiers in a bid to stabilise the chaotic country.
Al Shabaab, fighting to impose a strict version of sharia law on the nation, pulled most of their fighters out of Mogadishu in August, and have resorted to suicide attacks and guerilla-style tactics against AMISOM troops.
The AMISOM spokesman in Mogadishu said the militants had started fresh nightly attacks this week in a bid to recapture some positions in the rubble-strewn coastal city.
“We respond to the provocative mortars with shells. Al Shabaab will only kill civilians, they will never recapture these positions,” Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda said.
The insurgents warned their attacks would continue.
“We shall continue grenade and direct attacks in all corners of the city so every night our enemies will suffer casualties,” said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a rebel spokesman.
Some Mogadishu residents said government forces lacked the will to secure the remaining parts of the city, and accused the soldiers of pillaging.
“The government can secure all of Mogadishu but it seems it is not ready to do so. The government soldiers are busy looting public and private property,” said city resident Sabriye Olada.
Local government officials have warned soldiers of tough punishment if they were caught looting.
Britain’s Foreign Office extended its Kenyan travel warning to include low income and slum areas in the capital and Garissa district in the north east, after a spate of low-level attacks.
It still advises against all but essential travel to the Lamu archipelago, a popular tourist destination near the Somali border.