Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Wednesday, 24 September 2008 14:40 UK

AU peacekeepers mired in Somalia

A Somali picks through the remains of his home in Mogadishu, 22 September 2008

After African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops came under attack in Somalia for a third day running the BBC's Mark Doyle, who has recently travelled to the country, reports on the worsening political and humanitarian crisis there.

A spokesman for the peacekeepers, Ugandan army Maj Bahoku Barigye, said the AU soldiers were attacked at the strategically important 'K4' roundabout - a central junction in the capital, Mogadishu, situated 4km from the sea port.

"There was a skirmish, which we repulsed," Maj Barigye said.

"This was the third day in a row that we were attacked at K4. We didn't suffer any casualties."

File photo of African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu
The peacekeepers are stuck in the middle of the belligerents with a questionable mandate and insufficient troops
On Monday, the airport, which is the Ugandans' main military base, was also hit.

Maj Bariye denied reports that military "tanks" had been used to repulse these attacks.

"But we had to use the Mambas to defend ourselves," he said, referring to the South African-built armoured cars, mounted with machine guns, that the peacekeepers use to patrol parts of Mogadishu.

It is believed to be the first time in many months that the big guns on the Ugandans' armoured cars have been used in action.

This may be an indication that the scale of attacks against the peacekeepers is increasing.

'Failed state'

The African peacekeepers - mainly from Uganda, with a contingent from Burundi now beginning to deploy - were first sent to Mogadishu 18 months ago to try to help rebuild government institutions shattered by nearly two decades of civil war and to pave the way for peace talks.

Displaced Somalis at a camp 20km from Mogadishu, 20 September 2008
The UN says more than three million Somalis are in acute need of aid
But armed Islamist and nationalist insurgents say the Ugandans are protecting Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf, a leader they oppose.

The peacekeepers' mandate does include bodyguard services for President Yusuf - although they say they are protecting the presidency as an institution, in order to help rebuild a "failed state".

They insist that they would also protect anyone else who wants to work towards peace.

The main war in Somalia is currently between troops loyal to Mr Yusuf, backed by the army of neighbouring Ethiopia, and insurgents who are furious at the Ethiopian role in their country.

Ethiopia is Somalia's traditional enemy. The two countries have fought several proxy or direct wars.

There have been numerous credible reports of the Ethiopians firing "indiscriminately" at areas where civilians live, following attacks on them by the insurgents.

Catch 22

The insurgents also see the hand of the United States behind the Ethiopians.

The US maintains a military base in Somalia's neighbour Djibouti.

Somalis take an injured man to hospital in Mogadishu, 22 September 2008
Civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence in the capital
The Americans have on several occasions in the past two years fired long-range missiles into Somalia to assassinate Islamist leaders they say are associated with al-Qaeda.

This US activity, and the role of the Ethiopians, inflames passions among ordinary Somalis.

The Ugandans insist they are neutral in the war. But the bodyguard duties they perform for the Somali president put them in an extremely difficult, not to say impossible, position.

African leaders sent the AU troops in, with United Nations approval.

The idea was that the peacekeepers should stabilise the situation ahead of tentative peace talks, which are currently taking place in Djibouti.

But while the Somali government is talking to some opposition leaders (in a process organised by UN peace envoy Ahmadou Ould Abdallah) radical Islamists and nationalists have rejected these moves until there is a clear timetable for an Ethiopian withdrawal.

Here the peace talks come up against one of the several "Catch 22s".

That is that the Ethiopians say they cannot withdraw until a credible peacekeeping force can secure their volatile border with Somalia.

Stuck in the middle

But the AU troops are too thinly deployed to impose a military solution.

There are only 2,500 of them when the original plan was to send 8,000, and even that number would be insufficient in the current situation.

There has been some talk at UN headquarters in New York of a blue-helmet force to replace the AU, allowing the Ethiopians to withdraw and for peace talks to proceed.

But the talk of a UN force will remain just talk while there are no volunteers to supply troops to it - and while the insurgents continue their attacks.

Meanwhile, the peacekeepers are stuck in the middle of the belligerents with a questionable mandate and insufficient troops.

And ordinary Somalis, as usual, are dying in huge numbers from hunger and conflict.

Most of Somalia is now insecure.

The government, with Ethiopian support, holds pockets of land in the capital and near the Ethiopian border.

Most of the rest of south and central Somalia is subject to near-constant conflict or held by the insurgents.

The UN says more than three million Somalis are in acute need of aid.

Their requirements include shelter - for those who have fled their homes in the ruined capital and elsewhere - medical care and, simply, food.

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