U.S. steps up training for African force in Somalia
* Al Shabaab weakened by attacks on several fronts
* Somali government relies on African Union troops
* AU force hopes to take more territory outside capital
By Jocelyn Edwards
SINGO, Uganda, May 1 (Reuters) - At a training camp in Uganda, a dozen soldiers crouch, weapons raised as they make their way down a dirt road between shipping containers set up to look like buildings in the Somali capital.
Standing by, observing the Ugandan troops at work, is a U.S. marine, Major Mark Haley.
"Here is where we are going to teach urban warfare, how to fight building to building," Haley said as the Ugandans moved between containers scrawled with graffiti reading "City of Death" and "Hell Zone".
The model of the Somali capital, or "Little Mogadishu" as it is known, was built by American military trainers to prepare the Ugandan soldiers to take part in the African Union mission propping up the Western-backed government in Mogadishu.
After al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels pulled out of the capital last year, the United States has stepped up efforts to train Ugandan soldiers who will be part of the push by AMISOM to take more territory outside the capital.
The United States and other Western powers have been backing efforts to crush al Shabaab as they worry Somalia has become a safe haven for Islamist militants seeking to wreak havoc in the region and further afield.
Washington helps to fund the AMISOM force, provides assistance to the transitional institutions in Somalia and has carried out air strikes within the Horn of Africa nation to kill high-profile al Qaeda and al Shabaab suspects.
However, the United States is reluctant to put boots on the ground ever since its humiliating retreat from Somalia following the October 1993 "Blackhawk Down" debacle in which 18 U.S. servicemen and well over a thousand Somalis died.
Helped by AMISOM, the transitional government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed now controls most of Mogadishu for the first time since dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.
But Ahmed's government has little control over the rest of the country, where al Shabaab, clan-based militias and warlords control chunks of territory. Ethiopian and Kenyan troops are also battling al Shabaab inside Somalia.
U.S. officials say they are hopeful the equipment and training they provide will help AMISOM push al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda this year, out of Somalia.
"Because of these successes we see new targets that we need to help (the Ugandan forces) with, specifically mobility and counter-mobility as they move along these routes outside of Mogadishu," said Major Albert Conley, deputy chief of the office of security cooperation for the U.S. military in Uganda.
Uganda supplies the majority of the AMISOM troops in Somalia, which the United Nations agreed in February to increase from 12,000 to 17,731 peacekeepers.
AMISOM has sent a small contingent of troops to Baidoa, the former seat of Somalia's parliament and hopes to send more soldiers their when the reinforcements arrive.
A team of 30 marines deployed to Uganda in February for seven months to train combat engineers. The U.S. military is also providing Ugandan forces with equipment such as protective vests and mine detecting equipment.
The marine programme supplements training for Ugandans funded by the U.S. State Department already going on.
Since 2007, U.S. military trainers have trained nine battle groups of Ugandan soldiers deployed to Somalia.
About 3,500 Ugandan soldiers are now being trained by U.S. trainers at Camp Singo in areas such as patrolling, cordon and search operations and basic Somali language skills.
British and French trainers also lead exercises at the camp for Ugandan forces preparing to go to Somalia.
Standing outside the door of a first-aid training course, First Lieutenant Martin Orech, 30, said he was looking forward to getting the chance to serve in Somalia.
"If they give me a chance to go I will go so that we can make our brothers live happily like we are living in Uganda," he said.
"Why should I be nervous? I am trained to fight in such areas, I'm trained to do such work." (Editing by David Clarke; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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