US OFFERS NEW UN DRAFT BACKING PEACEKEEPING FORCE IN SOMALIA

New York - The United States on Friday circulated an amended draft in the UN Security Council aimed at endorsing plans to send a regional peacekeeping force into Somalia to support its weak transitional government, a Western diplomat said.

US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton earlier in the day said he was circulating the text to allow council members to send it to their capitals for instructions before it is taken up by experts Monday.

The new text, which takes into account amendments submitted by European countries, essentially endorses the proposed deployment of a 8 000-strong peacekeeping mission manned by troops from the seven-nation east African regional Inter-Governmental Authority on

Development (IGAD).

It would also call for an easing of the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia to allow "supplies of weapons and military equipment and technical training and assistance intended solely for the support or use by the (IGAD) force."

"What we want to do is endorse the insertion of a regional peacekeeping force which many of the African states have called for in order to provide some measure of stability to permit a political solution (in Somalia)," Bolton told reporters.

The mission would protect transitional federal institutions based in Baidoa, located about 250km north-west of the capital Mogadishu, and maintain security there.

But the deployment of the IGAD force is strongly opposed by Somalia's powerful Islamist forces, which seized Mogadishu in June after months of fighting and then grabbed most of the south and centre of the country where they have imposed strict Sharia law.

The US draft would stress the council's willingness "to engage with all parties in Somalia, including the Union of Islamic Courts, if they are committed to achieving a political settlement through peaceful and inclusive dialogue."

It would also urge the Islamists "to cease any further military expansion and reject those with an extremist agenda or links with international terrorism."

Diplomats said European council members offered amendments to improve the text to convince skeptics who fear the insertion of the force would in fact exacerbate an already volatile situation that could degenerate into a regional war.

Analysts have accused Horn of Africa arch-foes Ethiopia and Eritrea, who are still at odds over their unresolved border dispute, of fighting a proxy war in Somalia.

Addis Ababa denied claims that it had sent thousands of combat troops to Somalia, insisting that it has only deployed a few hundred military experts to train and advise the Somali government.

Eritrea has also flatly rejected the claims, but said Ethiopia should stay out of Somalia.

The proposed IGAD force would exclude troops from Somalia's immediate neighbors, particularly Ethiopia, but could include some from Uganda, diplomats said.

On Wednesday, the 15-member Security Council unanimously approved a Qatari-sponsored resolution calling on UN chief Kofi Annan to extend for six months the mandate of a panel of independent experts tasked with monitoring enforcement of the arms embargo. - Sapa-AFP