By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009
The U.S. government has provided about 40 tons of weapons and ammunition to shore up the besieged government of Somalia in the past six weeks and has sent funding to train Somali soldiers, a senior State Department official said yesterday, in the most complete accounting to date of the new American efforts in the strife-torn country.
The official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the military aid was worth less than $10 million and had been approved by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the National Security Council.
"We do not want to see Somalia become a safe haven for foreign terrorists," the official said.
Hard-line Islamist rebels allegedly linked to al-Qaeda have launched an offensive to topple Somalia's relatively moderate government, which has appealed to the United States and other African countries for help. The fighting has killed 250 civilians and forced more than 160,000 people out of their homes in the past month, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In an indication of the rebels' growing power, they held a ceremony Thursday in the capital, Mogadishu, in which they chopped off a hand and foot from each of four men convicted of stealing cellphones and other items, according to news reports from the region. The punishment was in line with the rebels' harsh version of Islam. The United States considers the rebel group, al-Shabab, a terrorist organization.
Somalia has been racked by violence since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. U.S. officials say the bloodshed and lawlessness in the country have caused a massive outflow of refugees and contributed to an upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The country has also become a haven for al-Qaeda operatives alleged to have carried out attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, U.S. officials say.
The African Union has sent troops from Uganda and Burundi to help Somalia's fragile government keep order.
The U.S. aid does not involve the deployment of any troops to Somalia, where 18 American soldiers were killed in the 1993 raid depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down."
In order to strengthen Somalia's military, the U.S. government is providing cash to its government to buy weapons, and has asked Ugandan military forces there to give Somali soldiers small arms and ammunition, the official said. The U.S. government is then resupplying the Ugandans, he said.
The U.S. government will also help pay for the Kenyan, Burundi and Ugandan militaries to train Somali soldiers, and is providing logistical support for the African Union troops, the official said.
Clinton called Somalia's president, Sharif Ahmed, in recent weeks to consult on the crisis, according to another U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.
He said the U.S. aid would likely encourage other African countries to do more to help Somalia's government.
U.S. officials accuse Eritrea of supporting the Somali rebels as part of a proxy war with its rival, Ethiopia. But efforts by State Department officials to meet with the Eritrean government have been fruitless so far, the official said.