LEAD: African Union seeks to boost Somalia force to 17,700
Jan 6, 2012, 14:07 GMT
Nairobi - The African Union (AU) wants to boost its peacekeeping force in Somalia from the mandated 12,000 troops to more than 17,700, the bloc said in a statement on Friday.
The peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, has backed the weak central government since early 2007, and this year made major gains against Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab.
However, commanders have long requested more soldiers, and AU leaders meeting at the bloc's headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Thursday called on the United Nations to approve its plans immediately.
The AU plan calls for 5,700 troops from Djibouti and authorizes Kenyan forces, which entered southern Somalia independently in October after a spate of kidnappings it blamed on al-Shabaab, to be re-designated as AU peacekeepers.
The force's mandate was also extended for another year at the meeting.
AMISOM is still short of its mandated 12,000 troops, although Djibouti has begun sending in soldiers to back the Ugandan and Burundian soldiers who have until now shouldered the burden of fighting al-Shabaab.
The force has more than 9,000 troops at present in Somalia. Working with the Somali government they have forced al-Shabaab out of the capital Mogadishu, although the insurgents still control much of southern and central Somalia.
Kenyan soldiers, pro-government forces, and Ethiopian troops are also fighting the insurgents on multiple fronts, pushing deeper toward their coastal stronghold of Kismayo.
Al-Shabaab began its insurgency in early 2007 following Ethiopia's invasion to oust an Islamist regime, and gained early support for its anti-Ethiopian stance before its hard-line policies alienated many Somalis.
Ethiopia pulled out its occupying forces in early 2009, but has trained pro-government militias and recently sent more troops across the border. The Ethiopians and a pro-government militia in December took the key town of Beledweyne from al-Shabaab.
Many analysts have warned that Ethiopia's renewed involvement could help al-Shabaab regain some public support, given the resentment many Somalis still hold over the country's previous invasion.
However, the AU said that the new peacekeepers would be sent to areas 'liberated with the support of Ethiopia, in view of the urgency of the stated intent of Ethiopia to withdraw from those areas.'
Peacekeepers would also be put into other areas, such as key towns in the border regions, taken from al-Shabaab by pro-government forces last year.
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