KAMPALA, July 25 (Reuters) – African leaders condemned Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels on Sunday at a Kampala summit officials say will beef up an African force fighting the group behind attacks that killed 76 people in Uganda this month.
The African Union (AU) meeting in the Ugandan capital, the site of two suicide attacks on soccer fans watching the World Cup final on television, has put the Somali crisis at the top of the agenda and more than 30 African leaders are under pressure to respond.
The summit’s main debating point has been the mandate of an AU peacekeeping force of 6,300, which has been responsible for preventing Somalia’s government falling to rebel attacks in the capital Mogadishu.
The force is made of up of Ugandan and Burundian troops and that, together with allegations that it has killed civilians with indiscriminate shelling, was the reason given by the rebels for the attack.
Delegates told Reuters a cap of 8,100 on troop levels would be lifted during the meeting. A more contentious possibility was that the force, known as AMISOM, be given permission to go after the rebels. It can now fight only when attacked.
AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping called the al Shabaab attacks “despicable” and said the continental body was ready to step up its response.
“The commission is already planning the next phases in the deployment of AMISOM in terms of the enlarged mandate, increased troop strength and appropriate equipment,” he said.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said his government condemned the attack and called al Shabaab “extremists”. Nigeria has pledged in the past to send troops to Somalia, but has yet to do so.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told delegates his government was getting “very good information” from suspects arrested after the bombings.
Diplomats at the summit told Reuters the heightened rhetoric might be a sign the AU was ready to give AMISOM permission to chase down al Shabaab, a group with links to al Qaeda which wants to impose its own harsh version of sharia law in Somalia.
Some countries are against the policy change, citing evidence that AMISOM has killed civilians. They argue such incidents could be a recruitment boon to al Shabaab, which controls parts of the capital and much of southern Somalia.
At least six civilians were killed and 20 wounded in Mogadishu on Sunday when a shell landed in a busy market. Witnesses said they had no idea where it had been fired from.
Since the start of the Islamist insurgency in Somalia in 2007, more than 21,000 civilians have been killed and rights groups have accused all sides in the conflict of war crimes.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said his government would share intelligence with Uganda and help catch the bombers. Dozens of U.S. forensic experts are combing the bomb sites in Kampala.
“We are now bound not only by friendship and partnership but also by a shared loss, a shared threat, a shared grief,” Holder told the African leaders.
“These acts are nothing more than reprehensible acts of cowardice inspired by a radical and corrupt ideology that subverts the peaceful teachings of a great religion.”
The AU said on Friday Guinea would send a battalion of troops to join AMISOM. The East African regional bloc IGAD last month pledged to send another 2,000 troops. That would take levels beyond the cap of 8,100.