- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The commander of a small African Union peacekeeping force deployed to this embattled city says his troops are surviving but that more soldiers are needed.

Col. Peter Elwelu, head of the 1,600-strong Ugandan battle group based at Mogadishu’s airport, says a strong international peacekeeping force has a chance to end the fighting, which has claimed thousands of lives and driven more than half a million residents from their homes.

Soldiers loyal to Somalia’s transitional government, based in the northern town of Baidoa and backed by a large Ethiopian force, are locked in daily battles with fighters from the Islamic Courts regime deposed in March as well as insurgents from the Al-Shabab nationalist group.

In March, the Ugandans braved mortar fire while deploying to four strategic locations throughout the capital, Mogadishu the airport, the seaport, the abandoned presidential palace and a critical road juncture.

In the first eight months, just five Ugandans have been killed and six injured in periodic mortar, rocket and small-arms attacks.

About 100 Burundian troops arrived last month to reinforce the Ugandans.

“People were skeptical” of Somalia peacekeeping, Col. Elwelu says, referring to officials from the African Union and the United Nations. “They said, ‘Let’s see what happens to the Ugandans.’ But we’re here for almost one year now. We’re surviving.”

The Ugandan battle group is more heavily armed than many peacekeeping forces.

Soviet-made tanks lurk in the shadows inside the Ugandans’ walled and sandbagged positions. Soldiers wearing body armor and sporting rocket launchers man concrete barriers.

Asked whether a tank served as deterrence, Capt. Paddy Ankunda laughed. “We anticipate using it.”

The original Somalia peacekeeping plan, forged by the African Union and the United Nations, envisioned 8,000 African troops blazing a trail for a much larger U.N. force. “Unfortunately, that did not happen,” Col. Elwelu says.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in November that Somalia was too dangerous for U.N. peacekeepers.

“Peacekeeping in Mogadishu it can work,” Col. Elwelu says. “We need the force on the ground. If we could have deployed in all of Mogadishu, things would have been much different. Where we are, you see a measure of security. What we just need is to have peacekeepers all around.”

Capt. Ankunda credits the peacekeepers’ good relationship with Mogadishu residents for helping the mission succeed. He says Ugandas large Somali immigrant population has won the peacekeepers a measure of good will.

Capitalizing on this, Col. Elwelu has extended an open invitation to all of Somalia’s warring parties to come to his headquarters to talk. Recently, Islamic Courts officials accepted the offer. Such dialogue is critical to reconciliation and a lasting peace, Col. Elwelu says.

Col. Elwelu says he would like to expand the Ugandan presence deeper into Mogadishu, ultimately taking over the central Bakara Market from Ethiopian forces. The once-thriving market has become Mogadishu’s main battleground as insurgents take on the widely hated Ethiopians.

“The Ethiopians have to pull out. That’s what they were supposed to do,” Col. Elwelu says. “We need to be more important in this process.”

However, taking over Bakara would require thousands more troops, officers say.

There are encouraging signs that both the AU and U.N. are prepared to reinforce Col. Elwelu’s troops. Besides Burundi, Ghana is slated to send reinforcements to the A.U. mission in coming months.

Despite Mr. Ban’s opposition, the U.N. Security Council in November urged planning for a possible deployment of U.N. peacekeepers.

Regardless, the Ugandans are here to stay, Col. Elwelu says. “I don’t see us going back.”

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