Somalia Seeks Urgent Support as it Faces Rebel Ultimatum

07 July 2009


Intense diplomatic activity is underway in East African capitals aimed at saving Somalia's embattled government from a determined onslaught by well-financed radical Islamist rebels. Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is touring the region before an urgent high-level meeting scheduled later this week.

President Sharif was in Ethiopia's capital as part of a whirlwind tour of the member states of IGAD, the East African regional economic grouping.

He flew on to Uganda's capital, Kampala. His is also visiting IGAD member states Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti before a regional foreign ministers' meeting Friday in Addis Ababa.

Last week, the African Union summit in Libya gave its full support to upgrading the overstretched AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia known as AMISOM.

Efforts are on to rapidly increase the size of the 4,500 member AMISOM force to its full strength of 8,000.

There is also a move to strengthen AMISOM's rules of engagement to meet the challenge posed by the recent influx of as many as 2,000 foreign fighters. The foreigners have come in response to a call from al-Shabab, the rebel group fighting to replace President Sharif's Western-leaning government with a hardline Islamic state.

Sunday, al-Shabab issued an ultimatum to government forces to surrender their arms within five days.

After meeting Ethiopian leaders, President Sharif said he is encouraged by the response and by the relative calm in the capital, Mogadishu, following nearly two months of heavy fighting. He spoke through an interpreter.

"The situation is calm in Somalia that last couple days. One of the things we discussed was completing the AMISOM forces to their full strength. The people of Somalia are supportive of their government as it leads them toward peace and stability," he said.

As the Somali president was speaking at an Addis Ababa hotel, the AU ambassadors from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council were meeting in a nearby room.

Diplomatic sources say the Security Council ambassadors discussed a request from African leaders at last week's summit to impose a no-fly zone and a blockade of Somali ports to prevent the entry of foreign fighters and the shipments of weapons that are fueling the conflict. The summit also urged the Security Council to sanction Eritrea, the Horn of Africa country accused of providing support to the Somali rebellion.

The United States last month urgently sent a $10-million arms and military training package to President Sharif's government. The African Union Peace and Security Council is slated to meet this month to consider boosting AMISOM's mandate to allow peacekeepers to more robustly engage the rebels.

Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed speaks to journalists, in Mogadishu, Somalia, 18 Jun 2009
Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed speaks to journalists, in Mogadishu, Somalia, 18 Jun 2009
President Sharif says he is encouraged by the votes of confidence from the AU summit and the neighboring IGAD countries.

"The support we are looking for is political support, and support that is meaningful that can make a difference in the lives of the Somali people," he said.

After meeting President Sharif, Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin said discussions are moving forward on all fronts.

"We have also discussed the need of supporting the government, building institutions of governance, and urging the international community to honor the pledges made in Brussels supporting the government financially and we have also discussed how we urge the United Nations Security Council to heed Africa's decisions, call on the Security Council of the United Nations to impose sanctions on the spoilers," Mesfin said.

Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia in 2006 to oust Islamists in Mogadishu, but the presence of foreign troops proved to be a rallying point for the rebels, and the Ethiopians pulled out earlier this year.

Despite the recent violence, Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said he has no intention of sending the troops back.