African military experts Thursday were devising a plan for sending a peacekeeping force to Somalia, where fundamentalist Islamists appear to be taking more control of the country from the weakened government, officials said.
The plan — which calls for as many as 3,500 peacekeepers by October — hinges on whether the internationally recognized transitional government and the Islamic courts group that controls the country’s south can ease political tensions, officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak to the media.
Military officials are meeting under the auspices of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which mediated peace talks that led to the formation of the transitional government two years ago.
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.
Uganda, Sudan forces would go
The peacekeeping plan being worked up calls for four battalions of Ugandan and Sudanese troops to be trained in Kenya and then deployed to Somalia to support the government in a first phase, the officials said. However, a smaller number may initially be sent, they said.
In June, Islamic militiamen took over the capital of Mogadishu and then seized control of much of southern Somalia. The government has been unable to assert its authority beyond Baidoa.
Four more peacekeeping battalions would be dispatched to bolster Baidoa in a second phase of the plan after the troops stabilize the south, the officials said.
The government and Islamists began Arab League-sponsored talks in June following the rise of the Islamists.
Divisions hobble talks' progress
The talks have been postponed because of divisions within the government and the Islamists’ objection to the presence of Ethiopian troops on Somali soil as reported by many ordinary Somalis. Both the Somali and Ethiopian governments deny the troops’ presence in Somalia.
A new round of talks between the Somali government and the Islamists is set for Aug. 31 in Khartoum, Sudan, officials said.
Somalia’s transitional government in the past has called for peacekeepers to help it establish a hold on the country. Parliament previously endorsed a security plan drawn up by President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government that includes a role for a regional peacekeeping mission.
The Islamists, however, oppose peacekeepers.
Kenyan Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula told reporters earlier Thursday that any decision on a peacekeeping mission would depend on the political situation in Somalia.
“The earliest that we can have a peace support mission on the ground in Somalia is a couple of weeks or months, but it will require a lot of money,” he said.
A Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging relations with the Arab League was skeptical about who would pay for the peace mission and whether the force could even be mustered.