UN says time not right for Somalia peacekeeping

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 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 after an annual meeting between the Council and the AU's Peace and Security Council, Britain's U.N. Ambassador John Sawers said: "The analysis of most members of the Council is that the conditions for that at present don't exist."

"The consensus within the Council is to continue our support for the African Union peacekeeping mission and to strengthen that support," Sawers told a news conference.

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 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'.

In the latest round of fighting Saturday, at least 18 al Shabaab members were killed in central Somalia.

"We have killed six al Shaabab, including one foreigner, in Wahas this morning," local elder Rage Osman said by telephone.

Another 11 fighters were killed by pro-government militia in the central Wabho town and one man was executed for throwing a hand grenade at a local governor.

'UNDERPINNING' THE AU

Diplomats said several African delegates at Saturday's meeting again raised the issue of turning the AU force into a U.N. one. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said such a force could become a target for attacks.

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.

Assessed contributions from the U.N. are obligatory and not subject to ad hoc fund-raising. One diplomat put a figure of $350 million on the value of the package but others said it was up to the General Assembly budgetary committee and could include goods and services such as transport.

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.

Analysts say that the disastrous U.S.-U.N. intervention in the early 1990s, which collapsed after the "Black Hawk Down" killing of 18 American soldiers would make it unlikely that the world would intervene in Somalia beyond beefing up the AU force.

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 talks with the government until the AU peacekeepers leave. In an interview with Reuters this week he accused U.N. special envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah of "destroying" the country by supporting the government.

But diplomats said delegates at Saturday's meeting continued to back the government. "We support the government in Somalia because it has gone through the rigours of consensus building," said Ugandan U.N. Ambassador Ruhakana Rugunda.

The talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa also focussed on Sudan, including the Darfur conflict.

Diplomats said an envoy from Burkina Faso, which is on the Council, told delegates there was no agreement in the body on deferring an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur. The AU and Arab League support such a deferment.

The visiting team of ambassadors and top diplomats from the 15-member Council will also visit Rwanda, Congo and Liberia.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed, Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu)

Article Published: 16/05/2009