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Beefed-up Somalia peacekeepers may renew offensive on al Shabaab

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Drazen Jorgic

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - U.N.-backed African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, bolstered by more than 4,000 new soldiers, may return to the attack against al Qaeda-linked militants, a senior AU commander said on Monday.

The AU force known as AMISOM will have more than 22,000 troops when the reinforcements agreed last week arrive.

Brigadier Dick Olum, a Ugandan commander in charge of one of the four AMISOM sectors covering Somalia, said the extra 4,000 soldiers could tilt the military balance against al Shabaab.

"I'm very confident that with 4,000 new troops, AMISON will definitely consider a new offensive," he told Reuters. "We shall not be referred to as sitting ducks any more."

AMISOM has driven al Shabaab rebels from the capital Mogadishu and several coastal towns since 2011, but became overstretched and the offensive stalled earlier this year.

With rebels still controlling many parts of Somalia, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's Western-backed government has struggled to exert full control and end more than two decades of fighting that has plagued the Horn of Africa state.

The insecurity is obstructing plans to create a federal state in Somalia and curb the power of Islamic militancy, viewed as a threat by Western powers and their African allies.

Al Shabaab has promised reprisals against nations contributing troops to AMISOM, such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, and claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September that killed 67 people.

Olum said a United Nations call for countries to consider supplying AMISOM with up to 12 military helicopters could prove crucial in broadening its reach and operational capabilities.

Brigadier Walter Raria, a Kenyan commander in charge of AMISOM sector 2, said gathering timely intelligence for combat was one of the main problems facing Kenyan and Sierra Leone troops fighting al Shabaab in southern Somalia.

"Without real-time information, sometimes it can be a challenge to operate," he told reporters at the AMISOM base in Kismayu airport, often used by Kenyan surveillance drones.

Although al Shabaab has suffered severe setbacks over the last two years, the insurgents still control a string of important towns on the coast and in central Somalia.

Since May, al Shabaab has changed tactics from conventional to guerrilla warfare, selecting targets that include the government, state bodies and the United Nations, according to a joint U.N. and African Union review of AMISOM.

Olum said AMISOM was considering which al Shabaab strongholds to target and cited the port city of Barawe as a critical area.

Halfway between Mogadishu and southern port city of Kismayu, Barawe is the biggest port still held by the militants. Ports remain Somalia's most prized economic assets as they are a source of revenue and an entry point for weapons.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/131118/beefed-somalia-peacekeepers-may-renew-offensive-al-shabaab