The African Union sought U.N. approval Thursday for a naval and air blockade of Somalia, as well as more troops and aid to fend off piracy and terrorism in the struggling Horn of Africa nation.
The AU's commissioner for peace and security, Ramtane Lamamra, urged the U.N. Security Council to authorize a blockade while seeking far more international aid and a contingent of 20,000 AU-led troops, up from the current authorization of 8,000. He also asked the council to approve hiring up to 1,680 police. The AU peacekeeping force, operating under the U.N. mandate, now has about 6,000 troops.
With Somalia lacking a fully functioning government since 1991, Lamamra called for a major escalation of troops and other resources to deter the pirates operating off the country's coast and prevent fighters and shipments from reaching the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab Islamist rebels who control much of Somalia.
Specifically, Lamamra requested U.N. authorization for "a naval blockade and a no-fly zone over Somalia to prevent the entry of foreign fighters into Somalia, as well as flights carrying shipments of weapons and ammunition to armed groups inside Somalia."
Somali Foreign Minister Yusuf Hassan Ibrahim told the council his government fully supports the AU's strategy.
"The history of Somalia during the past two decades is not just doom and gloom," he said. In some places, he said, there is still peace and local businesses and extended families have worked to "set up clinics, electricity, schools, telephones and running water despite the lack of central government."
But Somalia's army and police are too weak and the government cannot fix things alone, he said.
"We all know that there's no better people who can defend their countries except their own people," Ibrahim pleaded. "Therefore give us the means, support us in forming our police and army to really be in a situation to really confront the extremism, both the terrorism and piracy in our own country."
The council then met for several hours behind closed doors. Afterward, Uganda's U.N. Ambassador Ruhakana Rugunda, the current council president, told reporters the council considers the AU's request for a blockade to be "legitimate" but the council's members would need to study it further.
Lamamra also sought the 15-nation council's help in tightening international sanctions against Somalia, and in removing some of the underlying conditions that have led to a boom in piracy by doing something to tackle the illegal fishing and dumping of toxic substances and waste off the coast.
And in unusually blunt language, the AU official criticized the collective strategy of nations for pursuing ineffective strategies. He said an important choice must be made, since the Somalis are at a crossroads and "will not succeed in their efforts without the full support" of Africa and the world.
Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government since 1991. The weak U.N.-backed government controls just a portion of the capital, Mogadishu, and few other areas. The U.S. and Italy are helping pay for training for government forces to take on militants.
"The international community can decide to pursue its current policy of limited engagement and halfhearted measures, in the false hope that the situation can be contained," Lamamra said. Or, he added, "the international community can also decide it should step up its efforts."
Lamamra welcomed a call to expanded action by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spoke earlier before the council, the U.N.'s most powerful arm.
Ban urged its members "to take bold and courageous decisions" needed to build up the AU peacekeeping force. He praised the news that some Somali residents were benefiting from an offensive launched by Somali government troops last Sunday.
The troops are trying to win back control of areas held by al-Shabab militants and have recorded some early successes, with militants fleeing from at least one town near the border with Kenya.
The setback for the insurgent movement was an unexpected turn of events in a nation where the militants — and fears of a breeding ground for terrorism — have been growing in the absence of stability. The government apparently has been aided by moderate Islamist militias who oppose al-Shabab.
Ban said reports that the residents of the border town, Belet Hawo, were taking down al-Shabab flags flying there and replacing them with Somali national flags "are signs of the Somali people's yearning for peace and security."