African peacekeepers arrive in Somalia
March 1, 2007 6:51pm CST
MOGADISHU, Somalia - The advance team of an African peacekeeping force to Somalia arrived unannounced in the country on Thursday, a senior police officer said. A Ugandan military spokesman, however, denied that any troops were in Somalia. Thirty Ugandan troops arrived in a military plane Thursday morning, according to Adan Biid Ahmed, the police chief of the southern town of Baidoa where the transitional parliament sits. "This is the first batch of African peacekeepers to be deployed in Somalia," Ahmed told The Associated Press on the phone from Baidoa. Capt. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for Uganda's peacekeeping mission, told the AP that the Ugandan deployment will not happen until next week. In Jinja, Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni presided over a farewell ceremony Thursday for the peacekeepers, but did not give a deployment date or refer to the reports that an advance team was in Somalia. Assane Ba, a spokesman for the African Union's conflict management department, said he had no information about an advance team reaching Baidoa. The Ugandan contingent will be part of an African Union peacekeeping force meant to help Somalia's fragile, transitional government establish security in the country following decisive battles with a radical Islamic movement two months ago. The movement, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, was ousted from the capital it controlled for six months and its southern Somalia strongholds. African peacekeepers are expected to reach a level of 8,000 troops, with more than 1,600 coming from Uganda. The U.N. Security Council approved its deployment in a unanimous vote on Feb. 20. The peacekeepers will have to confront growing violence in the capital, Mogadishu. Since the government took control in December, insurgents have staged near-daily attacks, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence. Last week, the insurgents threatened suicide attacks against the African peacekeepers. Ethiopian troops, largely seen as an occupying Christian force, have been accused of indiscriminate attacks against civilian-populated areas. Museveni said the Ugandan troops are not going to impose peace in Somalia or disarm militias in the Horn of Africa nation. "Once we empower the Somalis, if they think that the guns should be removed from the population, they will be the ones to do it," the Ugandan president said. After his speech, Museveni, who was dressed in military fatigues, passed the Ugandan flag to Col. Peter Elwelu, the leader of the peacekeepers. As a military brass band played, Elwelu paraded in front of the troops who cheered and clapped to the music and gave a thumbs-up. Armored vehicles, all painted white and emblazoned with the African Union logo, then drove through the barracks as soldiers waved miniature Ugandan flags. Elwelu told the AP that the bulk of the troops' equipment is already on the move, with 25 tanks being transported by rail on Thursday to the Kenyan port of Mombasa from where they will be shipped to Somalia. "We are ready for whatever happens. We sympathize with our brothers in Somalia and believe we need to help them to bring peace and security," Elwelu said. Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy. The transitional government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order, but it has struggled to assert its authority.