U.N. sees time not right for Somalia peace force

By Patrick Worsnip

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council does not think conditions are yet right to send a peacekeeping force to Somalia but will step up support for African Union (AU) troops there, a senior Western envoy said on Saturday.

The Council, which has long been urged by African states to send blue-helmets to the turbulent Horn of Africa country, promised early this year to decide by June 1 whether to do so.

But ahead of an annual meeting between the Council and the AU, Britain's U.N. Ambassador John Sawers said: "We are still taking a staged approach towards U.N. peacekeeping. The conditions on the ground don't exist at the moment."

Battles between al Shabaab militants and pro-government fighters have killed at least 139 people and sent some 27,000 fleeing the Somali capital Mogadishu in the past week or so.

Some Western intelligence agencies fear Somalia, with its weak central government struggling against the Islamist insurgents, could become a beach-head in Africa for al Qaeda-style militants.

The U.N. special envoy to Somalia said on Friday up to 300 foreign fighters had joined the insurgents, and the Security Council voiced concern over reports that Eritrea has been arming the militants. Eritrea called this 'totally false'.

'UNDERPINNING' THE AU

Sawers told reporters a resolution to be considered in New York later this month would extend an existing support package for the AU force, known as AMISOM, for eight months.

"This is an unprecedented arrangement whereby through U.N. assessed contributions, we give the sort of underpinning to the African Union peacekeeping force to ensure its support arrangements are up to U.N. standards," he said.

Diplomats said the support package would include substantial funding.

There are currently more than 4,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops in AMISOM, but the force has been growing only slowly towards its planned strength of 8,000.

But the presence of foreign soldiers backing Somalia's government has been a sticking point for opposition figures since Ethiopian troops intervened in 2006. The Ethiopians left earlier this year.

Hardline opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys says he will not enter into talks with the government until the AU peacekeepers leave. In an interview with Reuters this week he accused the U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, of "destroying" the country by supporting the government.

The AU and Security Council later began talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that were due to focus on Somalia and Sudan, including the Darfur conflict. A team of ambassadors and senior diplomats from the 15-member Council will next week visit Rwanda, Congo and Liberia.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Article Published: 16/05/2009