Mogadishu — Troops from the African Union (AU) force AMISOM are spreading out of Somalia's capital Mogadishu as they seize ground in the surrounding area.
The African forces, largely made up of Ugandans and Burundians, previously confined their operations to Mogadishu, but have now extended out to a radius of 20-30 km and are expected to be deployed as far as 90 km outside the capital city.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, spokesperson of AU forces, most of the 12,000 AU forces that were carrying out patrols and cordon and search operations in Mogadishu are now in Elasha-Bihiya, Afgoye and Maslah, newly-captured from the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab.
The departure of AU forces, however, could lead to greater insecurity in Mogadishu itself and the city's vulnerability could grow as it is increasingly left in the hands of poorly trained Somali police. Although the capture of the strategic town of Afgoye cuts off al-Shabaab's direct links with the capital, insurgents could take advantage of strained forces to carry out unconventional attacks such as suicide attacks and car bombs inside the government-controlled territory. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, with the help of Europe and the US, has trained an additional 3,000 police forces to cover Mogadishu and its suburbs, but some fear this may not be sufficient.
Nevertheless, the spreading out of AU forces does mark AMISOM's recent successes in defeating al-Shabaab in former strongholds and Brigadier Paul Lokech, commander of the Ugandan contingent of AMISOM, assured Somalis that they will be carrying out surprise "mop-up" operations to help the Somali police.
The Mogadishu-Afgoye road
AMISOM forces are now digging trenches and banks to protect their newly-captured towns against al-Shabaab retaliation. Al-Shabaab has threatened revenge but it is not clear how they are going to respond. "We know their usual tactics" Brigadier Lokech told Think Africa Press, "They either drive vehicles loaded with explosives into our defence or carry out ambushes".
The change of the terrain from heavily built-up places like Mogadishu to the open lands around Afgoye, however, may hinder the militants' attempts as they will be more easily detected from a distance and vulnerable to attack by tanks and long range artillery.
Al-Shabaab is therefore likely to intensify ambushes on the Mogadishu-Afgoye road. Many supplies, including food, reach Mogadishu via Afgoye so interruptions in trade could result from al-Shabaab ambushes. It was also along this road that Somalia's President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was ambushed on May 29 as he travelled back to Mogadishu from visiting newly captured areas. Somali soldiers who carry out routine patrols on this road have frequently suffered ambushes by al-Shabaab. And as a result of fighting along the 30km stretch between Mogadishu and Afgoye, many people have now abandoned the area.
The fall of these areas to AMISOM has led to renewed hopes that the insurgents can be defeated. In a bid to bolster efforts, the US government recently announced several rewards of millions of dollars for information leading to the capture of seven specific al-Shabaab leaders. Meanwhile, AMISOM's Ugandan forces have vowed to follow al-Shabaab wherever they go.
According to Brigadier Lokech, AU forces now intend to advance from Afgoye to Merca, 90 km southwest of Mogadishu, to where al-Shabaab fighters have retreated. Lokech admitted, however, that this will be a big challenge without the right equipment such as helicopters.
"If you look at the distance from Mogadishu to Merca it is 90 km. Now, if you get casualties, what happens? Are you going to drive the injured soldiers 90 km to save lives? You can't. But if you had helicopters, within 30 minutes, you will already be in Mogadishu," he said. The only medical facilities for the peacekeepers are in Mogadishu.
Lokech has therefore appealed to the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM, which gives logistical support to the mission, to deploy greater airpower to the forces. The helicopters would also be used to attack the fleeing al-Shabaab fighters and allow AU forces to advance faster to targeted areas.
In the bid to defeat al-Shabaab, troops from various African nations have been given specific tasks in the overarching mission: Uganda commands the mission and is in charge of operations and engineering; Kenya is responsible for intelligence and logistics; and Burundi is in charge of planning and communication. Djibouti, which recently joined, is also doing the smaller-scale task of helping with training while Sierra Leone (yet to deploy) will be involved in civil-military cooperation.
It is hoped that coordinated AU efforts will be sufficient to pacify al-Shabaab and create enough security by July, when Somalis are scheduled to go to the polls to elect a new government.
Risdel Kasasira is a Ugandan journalist with seven years of experience in journalism. He has reported widely on politics, security and wars in East and Central Africa. He has been in Somalia many times covering the conflict in the Horn of Africa. He has also been in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic and DR Congo many times to report on the Ugandan army operations against Lord's Resistance Army rebels and its elusive leader Joseph Kony. He has also reported from the Ugandan Parliament for two years.