African Military Experts Discuss Peacekeeping Mission for Somalia

Top African military officials are studying a proposal to send a 3,500-strong peace force by October to Somalia, where an internationally recognized government appears increasingly weak in comparison to and its fundamentalist Islamic rivals.

Officials said Thursday that four battalions, made up of Ugandan and Sudanese troops, will be trained in Kenya before being deployed in an initial phase to the conflict-ridden country, African military experts told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

CountryWatch: Somalia

The military officials are meeting under the auspices of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which mediated peace talks on Somalia that led to a transitional government being formed two years ago.

Somalia's transitional parliament had endorsed a security plan drawn up by Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf's government that includes a role for a regional peacekeeping mission.

Somalia has not had a national army or police since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, pulling the country into anarchy.

In June, Islamic militiamen took over the capital and then seized control of much of southern Somalia, while Yusuf's weak, internationally recognized government has been unable to assert its authority beyond Baidoa.

The plan under discussion in Kenya is to station the troops in the southern Somalia regions of Bay and Bakol, the officials said. Yusuf's government is based in Baidoa, the capital of the Bay region, but has been unable to assert its authority elsewhere in the country.

Four more battalions will be dispatched in a second phase when they have stabilized the area, the officials said.

A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging relations with the seven-nation grouping, was skeptical about who would pay for the peace mission and whether the force could even be mustered.

Kenyan Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula told the military chiefs that need was urgent.

"Even more important, there is a need for the Somali parties to create conditions for the peace support operation," Wetangula said.

"We wish to underscore that the troops expected to be deployed will not be an occupation force, but rather a force that will assist Somalis realize peace and work closely with the Transitional Federal Institutions and relevant Somali actors," Wetangula said.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development first drafted a plan for a peacekeeping mission to Somalia in March 2005, but it could not implement it because a 1992 U.N. Security Council arms embargo on Somalia remains in force.

The grouping has made several calls for the embargo to be eased, which the Security Council has not acted on. In recent months, however, senior European officials have indicated that they could push for such a measure if the Somali government and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development came up with a clear plan for a peacekeeping mission.

Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N.'s top envoy to Somalia, told journalists Wednesday that he had advised the Security Council against making any changes to the arms embargo and, instead, said that they should push for more talks between the government and Islamists on the rise in the country.