ENTEBBE, Uganda – Uganda is willing to provide as many as 20,000 troops to restore order in Somalia if enough money is provided for the mission, Uganda's president told visiting members of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
President Yoweri Museveni suggested that anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 troops could be provided for a U.N.- or African Union-led mission in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation. He said Uganda had the manpower, experience and training, but merely lacked the funding.
"The number is not a big deal, we can provide any number," Museveni said at a news conference in the State House on Wednesday. "What's the alternative? ... Somalia should not be taken over by terrorists. That's the bottom line."
The comments followed a more than hour-long meeting between Museveni and the Security Council, at which Somalia was a major topic of discussion.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991 when warlords overthrew a longtime dictator and then turned on each other, plunging the country into chaos and anarchy. The transitional government, established in 2004, and the 7,100-strong African Union peacekeeping force, have struggled to defend key installations in the capital, Mogadishu, against an offensive by Al-Shabab Islamic extremists.
At a mini-summit on the sidelines of last month's U.N. General Assembly ministerial meeting, AU chairman Jean Ping appealed for funds to increase the force from the current 8,000 ceiling to 20,000, saying the troops were available but money was needed to pay and equip them.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference Wednesday in New York that he was encouraged by the "strong commitment of world leaders" to support Somalia's transitional government in strengthening its army, police and domestic institutions, which he said will also require financial and political support.
Uganda's support of the AU-led mission in Somalia has drawn fierce criticism from Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida. It cited Uganda's participation in the AU mission in claiming responsibility for July terror attacks in Uganda's capital that killed 76 people
Earlier in the day, council members visited a major air base for United Nations peacekeeping missions where a senior official told reporters that budget cuts have forced the elimination of essential aircraft and hampered operations in Congo and Sudan.
Paul Buades, the new director of support services for the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission in Congo, told journalists that six more planes among the U.N.'s 68 aircraft may have to be mothballed as well following $73 million in budget cuts.
"It reduces the capability of the forces," Buades said in answer to a question about how fewer U.N. planes would affect peacekeeping efforts. "I feel sorry, as a manager responsible for the support, that I cannot deliver up to the ambition" of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special representative in Congo.
Buades said India has pulled back eight helicopters and the U.N. has been left with no attack helicopters and only non-military commercial helicopters.
Ban, the U.N. chief, said he is "concerned by increasingly limited resources" for the Congo mission, citing an "acute shortage of critical assets" including helicopters.
"We are now trying to make up for all these losses of critical assets," he said. "It has always been very difficult ... to get the provision of critical assets at the right time, at reasonable amount of support, but we will have to continue to discuss with the Security Council and key troop contributing countries."
The U.N. Security Council — including the top envoys from permanent council members U.S., Russia, China and Britain — toured the Entebbe air base Wednesday and met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Later Wednesday the team flew to Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, where the council met with Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir.
The chief aim of the trip to Sudan is to prevent any obstruction of a referendum in early January that could split Africa's largest nation in two, and to see what can be done about a recent escalation in violence in the country's western Darfur region.
Southern Sudan, a semiautonomous region, is scheduled to vote on whether to secede from the north. The oil-rich region of Abyei is due to hold a separate vote the same day, deciding whether to be part of the north or the south.
Vote preparations are behind schedule, and Security Council diplomats say the votes must proceed on time to avoid reigniting the catastrophic civil war that raged for decades and ended in 2005.
"The principle purpose of the trip is to underscore the council's commitment to holding the referenda on time, and that they be a credible representation of the people of Southern Sudan and Abyei, and that the results be respected," the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, told The Associated Press.
U.S. President Barack Obama told a high-level meeting he convened last month to rally international support for Sudan that the nation can choose peace or "slip backwards into bloodshed."
Council members are scheduled to fly to Juba, the regional capital of Southern Sudan, and then on to conflict-wracked western Darfur and Khartoum. They plan to skip any contact with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes and genocide.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.