KAMPALA: East African representatives said on Friday the drawdown of an African Union mission fighting jihadists in Somalia could "reverse gains" and urged the United Nations to reconsider plans to withdraw troops by December 2020.
Heads of state and ministers from the main troop-contributing countries — including Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia — met in Kampala on Friday and said the timeframe for the drawdown was "not realistic and would lead to a reversal of the gains made by AMISOM."
The AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force deployed in 2007 to defend the internationally-backed government against attacks by the Shabaab, a Somali-led al-Qaeda affiliate.
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There are currently 21,626 troops in the force, which operates with the approval of the UN and relies on international funding.
In July 2016, the AU announced plans for a staggered withdrawal, to begin in October 2018 and be completed by the end of 2020. A UN Security Council resolution, adopted last August, authorised a gradual reduction.
A thousand troops were withdrawn last year and another 1,000 are due to leave by October this year.
Defence officials at the Kampala meeting said the withdrawal was leaving troops exposed and allowing the Shabaab to recapture territory.
The ongoing challenge facing Somalia was highlighted on Friday. Three Burundian troops were killed and seven injured in an ambush claimed by Shabaab on an AMISOM convoy near the town of Jowhar, some 90 km north of Mogadishu.
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Burundi's defence ministry provided the death toll on Twitter and said another four soldiers were missing.
A joint statement from the Kampala meeting urged the UN Security Council to "reconsider" the drawdown and "restore" AMISOM troops to allow the recovery of territory still under the control of Shabaab, and more time to train the Somali national army.
Experts describe the bloated and largely ineffective Somali army as more a collection of clan militias, with various international militaries providing poorly-coordinated training to different units.
Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohamed and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni attended the meeting, as did African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat.
The Shabaab lost its foothold in Mogadishu in 2011, but has continued its fight, and was blamed for the country's worst ever attack in which a truck bombing left over 500 dead in October last year.