The United Nations will on Tuesday confront the challenge of an almost total collapse of order in Somalia, a failed state described at the weekend as a “basket case” and potential haven for international terrorism.
Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, is taking part in a debate at the UN Security Council on how to strengthen measures against Somalia-based piracy, the latest threat to emerge from the breakdown of the east African state.
The meeting coincides with efforts by African Union diplomats to prevent the withdrawal of all foreign troops after Ethiopia said it was ending its two-year military presence. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, has said Uganda and Burundi want to pull their troops out of an AU peace force at the same time.
UN policy towards Somalia has been focused on supporting a weak transitional government that is opposed to local Islamist groups and which looks set to break apart after President Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord, tried but failed to sack Nur Hassan Hussein, prime minister, at the weekend.
“Somalia is a basket case,” John Hutton, UK defence minister, said. “It is a classic area where you have got ungoverned space, no effective state apparatus, and criminality and potential terrorism,” he told the BBC.
Apart from the presence of an ineffective AU force, the international community has abandoned direct intervention in Somalia since a US-led force quit in 1993 after militias destroyed two military helicopters and killed 18 servicemen.
World attention on the Somali crisis has resurfaced with a resurgence of piracy in the region that Nato, the European Union and other foreign navies are attempting to combat.
A draft Security Council resolution circulated by the US would allow the world’s navies to send forces onshore in pursuit of the pirates, potentially a first step in a wider international intervention. But the proposal has already been opposed, even by US defence officials. Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said last week the military lacked the intelligence resources needed to carry the fight to the pirates on land.
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia with US backing at the end of 2006 to oust an alliance of Islamists that had taken control of the country earlier that year and to reinstall Somalia’s interim government.
But the feuding government has failed to establish any authority and Ethiopia has been unable to block the resurgent Islamists, who now control most of south and central Somalia.
Analysts say Uganda and Burundi are concerned that, if the Ethiopians leave, their soldiers would become the main target of Islamist insurgents who have waged a campaign of bomb and mortar attacks.
Some analysts say the withdrawal of foreign troops would create a security vacuum that would allow the Islamists to return to power, possibly led by the al-Shabaab militia, which the US says is tied to al-Qaeda.