Somalis hope Afro-Arab force can help peacekeepers

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MOGADISHU, Sep 23 (Reuters) - Somalis in Mogadishu have broadly welcomed calls for an Arab-African peacekeeping force to replace Ethiopians troops supporting their interim government, which is being battered by an insurgency.

Ethiopian artillery, tanks and war planes helped fighters loyal to the fragile administration rout rival Islamists from the capital in a brief conflict over the New Year.

But the continued presence of soldiers from a Christian-led neighbour that many Somalis view as an enemy has raised tensions among many residents of Muslim Somalia who are weary of war.

''It is good to bring an Arab-African peacekeeping force if it will take us out of our living hell,'' Mogadishu resident Farah Osman told Reuters. ''I hope the situation will improve, although Somalis are difficult to deal with.'' Mother-of-six Fatuma Abdirahman agreed: ''We welcome forces from all over the world to put out the fire in our country.'' Earlier this year, the African Union agreed to send 8,000 peacekeepers to replace the Ethiopians, whose presence has inflamed the rebellion in the capital since January. So far, however, only about 1,600 Ugandan troops have arrived.

The call for a new Arab-African force under the aegis of the United Nations came in a visit to Saudi Arabia a week ago by Prime Minister Mohamed Gedi and President Adbullahi Yusuf.

Disgruntled members of Mogadishu's dominant clan, the Hawiye, have also been accused by government officials of joining the Islamist-led insurgency. A top clan official said they would be happy with any plan that saw the Ethiopians leave.

HIDDEN INTERESTS? ''Ethiopians have hidden interests in Somalia,'' a Hawiye clan chairman, Mohamed Hassan Had, told Reuters. ''We shall get peace if Ethiopian troops withdraw and legal forces come.'' Boosting the insurgents last week, Somali opposition figures including Islamist leaders formed a new opposition alliance in Eritrea that vowed to wage war on Ethiopian troops in Somalia.

A spokesman for the alliance, Zakariya Mahamud Abdi, said any new peacekeepers should not just replace the Ethiopians.

''They should not come as an aiding force to Yusuf,'' he said.

''We don't have any problem with Arab-African forces, but they must come in a legal way with the consensus of the Somali people ... If they come to support tyranny and dictatorship then it is an occupation force.'' But with African nations so far failing to send troops to get the AU force up to strength, many observers wonder where the push to find more soldiers for Somalia will come from.

Without reinforcements, the Ugandans who have been in Mogadishu since March have largely been restricted to guarding the air and sea ports and Villa Somalia presidential palace.

The new UN special envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, told Reuters on Saturday that it was vital the outside world follow through on its promises to help.

''It is very important for us in the U.N. and international community to be consistent, both in our words and our actions,'' he said. ''This is crucial ... It has been adopted by the Security Council and we must help and assist this population.'' REUTERS JK KP1410

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