The African Union says it has commenced the downsizing of troops from Somalia in line with decisions taken by the AU and UN Security Council to hand over security responsibilities to the Somali Army.
The head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) Francisco Madeiro told the media in the capital Mogadishu on Tuesday that a thousand soldiers will be withdrawn from the country by the end of 2017, earlier than the 2018 scheduled date.
“This is a process of re-alignment to effect the reduction in numbers and begin the handover of security responsibilities to Somali Forces. I want to assure all that this exercise is being conducted with caution to ensure the security of the Somali people is not compromised,” he said.
“This is what we have always envisioned over the last 10 years of our support to Somalia. We are proud and envisioned a time when we could hand over responsibility to the Somali National Security Forces. Troop movements have started in different parts of Somalia and will continue for the coming weeks,” he added.
Madeiro said 500 police officers will be deployed to train and mentor the Somali Police who will enforce law and order in the country.
He called for timely support for the Somali Army as it fights the Islamist insurgency which has heightened its attacks in the country.
“The Somali forces urgently need to be equipped with necessary weapons and key logistical support including timely payment of stipends. Other urgent support includes provision of quality medical care and establishment of key infrastructure – barracks and training centres etc.
“We all have one enemy, Al Shabaab. We must consolidate whatever skills, knowledge and assets we can gather, as one united force,” he added.
Al Shabaab has killed thousands of civilians and soldiers through car and suicide bombings as it seeks to topple the western-backed government and impose its strict version of the Sharia law.
Its deadliest attack on 14 October killed at least 400 people when a truck carrying explosives was detonated at a busy junction in Mogadishu.
Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed sought support from neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti to increase the offensive against the group.
Uganda has the highest contribution of troops to AMISOM and it promised to add more. Ethiopia and Djibouti made the same promises.
Somalia had appealed to the international community to lift the arms embargo imposed on it by the United Nations 25 years ago.
This has limited its soldiers from engaging in a swift offensive as they only carry light weapons to fight al Shabaab.
AMISOM has 22,000 soldiers in Somalia. It is expected to fully withdraw by 2020.
Serit Lambat with agency reports