ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - East African defence ministers want the United Nations to endorse a plan that boosts the size of an African Union force trying to stabilise Somalia by including Kenyan troops, an AU official said on Wednesday.
The ministers met in the Ethiopian capital to try to forge a strategy to defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group, which has been driven out of the capital Mogadishu and is now facing a new front after Ethiopia joined Kenya last week in unilaterally deploying troops.
Nairobi sent troops into the lawless Horn of Africa country last year following a wave of cross-border attacks and kidnappings it blamed on the rebels.
The AU has a force of less than 10,000, known as AMISOM, made up of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers and is largely responsible for preventing the militants from taking over Somalia.
Djibouti last month sent in the first 100 of a planned deployment of 900 troops, and the inclusion of Kenyan troops would push the force to a total of 17,700, the AU’s Peace and Security Council head Ramtane Lamamra said.
“We have been working very closely on a new strategic concept that will take on board the new situation on the ground,” Lamamra told journalists on the sidelines of the gathering.
“It means you will have an AMISOM with 17,700 soldiers. The main thing here is Kenya will be rehatted and Djibouti will be a part of AMISOM,” he said.
Part of the strategy is to also boost Somalia’s security and police force to try to shore up the peacekeepers’ efforts, Lamamra added.
Another official told Reuters that AMISOM’s mandate, currently limited to Mogadishu, would be effectively expanded with Kenya’s inclusion in the force. Lamamra said the AU was scheduled to endorse the plan on Thursday.
“We will then go to New York to present it to the U.N. Security Council which is likely to have a special session on this in the next few days,” he said.
A Kenyan military source told Reuters that the key thing with the process was for the United Nations to approve the expansion of the force, which was capped at 12,000.
The United Nations is one of the funding agencies of the operation, the Kenyan military source added.
Ethiopian troops captured rebel-held Beledweyne on Saturday, in a new front against the militants who are seen as a threat to the region’s stability.
Ethiopian soldiers previously went into Somalia in 2006, and left in early 2009 after pushing the Islamist Islamic Courts Union, the precursor of the al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam rebels, out of Mogadishu.
At the time, most Somalis opposed the intervention and analysts said it may have encouraged people to join the militants. This time, locals say public opinion has largely turned against the militants.
Lamamra said Addis Ababa would withdraw its troops after helping Somali government soldiers expand their reach in the country.
“There is a clear recommendation that Ethiopia is helping AMISOM and (Somalia’s) Transitional Federal Government to achieve certain strategic results on the region,” he said.
“Once that’s done, AMISOM will take over (Ethiopia’s role).”