Burundi defiant as AU removes 1,000 of its soldiers from Somalia

By AP + Bloomberg , Somalia

Bujumbura — An official in Burundi says the withdrawal of 1 000 Burundian soldiers from the African Union regional force in Somalia has begun.

The military official in Burundi, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said on Thursday that about 200 soldiers boarded a flight from Somalia to Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, in the afternoon.

More soldiers are expected to be flown back from Burundi in the coming weeks.

AU says it plans to withdraw the 21 500 troops that it has in Somalia by the end of 2020.

The African Union force, made up of soldiers from several African countries, has for years tried to secure the Horn of Africa country against the Islamic extremist rebels of al-Shabab.

 - Burundi rejects AU's troop pull-out decision -

Burundi legislators backed the government’s threat to withdraw all the nation’s troops serving under an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia, saying a reduced contingent would endanger the remaining soldiers.

The AU, following a plan to gradually remove foreign soldiers from Somalia as it builds its own army after decades of civil war, asked Burundi to withdraw 1,000 of its 5,400 troops.

Burundi in December proposed to pull out 341 troops and asked that other nations contributing troops to the mission known as Amisom, withdraw the rest.

A smaller contingent would be ineffective in fighting Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab militants, Burundi’s Senate chair Reverien Ndikuriyo said on Thursday. Removing that many soldiers would endanger the remaining Burundian contingent, he said.

Amisom’s mode of operation assigns each country to cover specific areas, with Burundian troops in charge of the Middle Shabelle region.

While the militants seemed to be in retreat, they recently stepped up attacks in Somalia and claimed responsibility in January for a raid on an office and hotel complex in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, that left at least 21 people dead.

Burundi is the second-largest contributor of troops after Uganda, which has 6,200 soldiers in the mission, according to Amisom. Other contributing countries include Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya.

All contributing nations agreed to a gradual withdrawal of troops until 2021 when Amisom is supposed to handover to the Somali army, Burundian defense minister Emmanuel Ntahomvukiye told legislators on Thursday. “This is not what is being done by the AU Peace and Security Commission,” he said.

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