NAIROBI An attack that killed four Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu this week bore the hallmarks of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, Washington's new special envoy to Somalia, John Yates, said on Friday.
In the first attack of its kind against African Union troops, gunmen used a remote-controlled bomb to blow up their convoy, fuelling fears Islamist militants were following through on a threat to wage an Iraq-style insurgency.
"Obviously the tactics of the one that hit the Ugandan convoy and killed AU peacekeepers were very much like the tactics that al Qaeda and other terrorist movements have used in the past," Yates told a news conference in neighboring Kenya.
"And we are very concerned of course that this is in fact an indication of something like that," the career diplomat said in his first public comments since being appointed on Thursday.
In Kampala, a Ugandan military spokesman said the army was saddened by the deaths of its men, but would not pull out.
"This cannot change our resolve to bring peace to Somalia," Major Felix Kulayigye told Reuters. "We shall continue. The military program is dangerous -- this is not a surprise."
There has been relative calm in Mogadishu since the interim government, supported by the United States and Ethiopia, declared victory over insurgents after two rounds of fierce battles that locals say killed at least 1,300 people this year.
Yates, the U.S. envoy, said Washington hoped a three-week ceasefire between Ethiopian soldiers defending the government and Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan would become permanent.
He also stressed the importance of talks between the government and Hawiye elders before a much-delayed national reconciliation conference planned for next month.
The meeting, which has been postponed twice because of insecurity in Mogadishu, is intended to address clan divisions and other grievances behind 16 years of lawlessness in the Horn of Africa country.
President Abdullahi Yusuf has said the conference would not host the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC), who ruled most of southern Somalia for six months last year before being driven out by allied Somali-Ethiopian troops.
However, Yates said individual SICC figures may attend the meeting under a clan-based representation system.
"They can still come and be represented and their position can be represented," he said. "As long as the clans have the opportunity to pick their delegates freely without pressure from the government, we believe this is a satisfactory solution."
The worst fighting in Mogadishu since warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 has overshadowed debate about Somalia's transition to lasting central rule.
Yates said he hoped the reconciliation meeting would also make decisions about holding a conference on the constitution and a timetable for elections before the interim government's mandate expires in 2009.
The U.N. World Food Programme said a second round of food distributions began on Friday, but warned a new spate of piracy threatened its main supply routes to Somalia.
"In the hope of enriching themselves, these pirates are very cruelly playing with the lives of the most vulnerable women and children who had to leave their homes because of fighting," WFP Somalia Country Director Peter Goossens said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Kampala)