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African Union peacekeepers cite struggles in expanding reach across Somalia's troubled capital

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — African Union peacekeepers said Friday they have worked frantically to establish new bases across Somalia's chaotic capital, in what officials said is a new strategic turn after Somali soldiers ditched more than a dozen key positions during a month of bloody clashes.

The force of some 7,100 Ugandans and Burundians has dashed across the seaside capital, setting up seven bases in the last month in the wake of bloodshed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

During that time, officers said, peacekeepers have scrambled to fill the gaps left by deserting Somali soldiers. In one recently won position, snipers stared out from positions where the corridors were still smeared with blood from a confrontation a week earlier.

"Capture, consolidate, advance," said Maj. Barigye Bahoku, the force's spokesman, as he described their new tactics. But he said the pace of expansion has been threatened by a lack of badly needed troops and funding delays from donor countries.

"We need the troops yesterday, not tomorrow," he told journalists in Mogadishu as he crouched behind a bank of sandbags to avoid sniper fire. The AU is waiting for donor countries to volunteer money for transporting and equipping more fighters, he said.

The peacekeepers are fighting a bloody battle against an alliance of Islamist insurgents, some of whom have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida.

Among their ranks are estimated to be hundreds of foreign fighters. They are mostly African or returned Somalis but some come from further afield, raising fears the failed state could be used as a training ground for terrorists to launch attacks on the West.

"If we kill the foreigners and they can't retrieve the bodies, they will destroy their faces with a rock," said Lt. Col. Francis Chemo, the Ugandan commander at Uhruba Hotel. The beautiful arched windows of the tall building overlook Mogadishu's sun-drenched harbor; the inside has been smashed to rubble by constant pounding from mortars and bullets.

The hotel used to be a Somali police post, but they abandoned it three weeks ago and insurgents moved in. The peacekeepers recaptured it last week. There's graffiti scrawled all over the pockmarked walls and blackened blood stains that paint a trail of a body dragged down a hallway. The insurgents left behind two dead with mangled faces, said Chemo; he thinks they must have been foreign.

Three peacekeepers were also wounded in the two-hour battle, which began when the AU used an armored bulldozer to fill in tank traps — 21 foot (7 meter) deep tunnels dug under the surface of the road and designed to collapse under the weight of an AU armored vehicle.

But the insurgents aren't the only ones who have changed their tactics. The peacekeepers now have 70 bases dotted throughout the city, and are expanding at a rapid rate, pulling troops from positions they consider more secure to move closer to insurgent positions.

At an area named after a defunct Coca-Cola factory, a Ugandan soldier led an Associated Press reporter through a network of holes punched into compound walls, connecting neighboring houses to each other. The so-called "mouseholes," first used three weeks ago, let troops occupy entire blocks without exposing themselves to enemy fire. In alleys behind the houses, sweating soldiers shoveled sand into black plastic sacks in preparation for another advance.

Many of the new bases were only established to plug holes left when the Somali government and their allies deserted them, said Col. Michael Ondoga. From a new base in the old Parliament building, he pointed to several such positions. Sometimes the peacekeepers only found out the soldiers had left their positions when they saw them abandoned in the morning.

"I have talked to them and asked them to come back," Ondoga said. "They have their own problems ... when the commander is injured, they will leave."

Some of the problems were political as well, he said. The commander in chief of the army has recently been replaced, and the president and prime minister are publicly feuding. The prime minister faces a vote of no confidence on Saturday. Somali armed forces are basically militias loyal to a single individual; if his political fortunes take a downturn, they will often simply go home.

Ondoga said some government forces had come back, and he was negotiating with more commanders for their return. The AU offers government troops medical support, ammunition, food, mentoring and supporting firepower, he said. As he spoke, the constant crack of rifles was occasionally interrupted by the whoosh of a rocket propelled grenade.

Ondoga could not say how long it would take before the Somali army was ready to stand by itself. International donors are trying to find a way of paying soldiers directly to stop commanders from stealing their wages.

But reforming the army is only the first step in rebuilding Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for 20 years. The A.U.'s official mission is to support the Somali government and help it rebuild. But no one is willing to guess how long it will take.