By Sahal Abdulle
MOGADISHU, May 1 (Reuters) - African Union peacekeepers patrolled Mogadishu on Tuesday in their first foray into the city since the end of government clashes with insurgents that killed at least 1,300 people and sparked a massive refugee exodus.
Ugandan troops in a convoy of 30 armoured vehicles and trucks rolled through the clash-hit areas of northern Mogadishu in what they described as an effort to boost local confidence in them and learn the city.
"As we move forward, we will be doing active patrolling, protecting government institutions and preparing an environment for a humanitarian delivery," AU mission spokesman Capt. Paddy Ankunda said.
The 1,600 Ugandan troops in Mogadishu, plus others pledged from other African countries who have yet to deploy, are supposed to take over security from Ethiopian troops now backing the interim government.
The United Nations Security Council on Monday ordered the world body to draw up contingency plans to deploy U.N. peacekeepers to take over from the AU force, a prospect many view as unlikely unless Somalia becomes more stable.
The presence of soldiers from Ethiopia — the traditional rival of Somalia — has inflamed some of the clashes and given insurgents fighting the government a rallying cry among the usually nationalistic Somali people.
Defeated Islamist fighters — including foreign jihadists — and disgruntled clan gunmen have fought the government and its Ethiopian allies in increasingly violent battles since February.
The fighting — in which artillery shells, rockets and machineguns were fired indiscriminately — has killed at least 1,300 people in recent weeks and turned parts of the coastal capital into a ghost town.
The United Nations has warned of a looming catastrophe with 365,000 people fleeing Mogadishu since February — most of them clinging to survival in nearby towns or out in the open.
The government on Saturday declared victory and began sweeping insurgency strongholds for weapons, fighters and looters. And a handful of residents are returning since the guns have fallen silent.
But many are sceptical that the insurgency is over, while Islamist leaders in exile in Eritrea have said their fighters have just fallen back to regroup and change their tactics.
The government is also holding talks with Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan, which funded the Islamists’ brief rule of Mogadishu and its environs before their defeat by Ethiopia and the government in a late December war.
Many Hawiye believe President Abdullahi Yusuf is using the government to favour his own Darod clan, evoking fears that he may punish the Hawiye as dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, also a Darod, did until his 1991 ouster ushered in an era of anarchy.
The government, established in 2004, is trying to restore central rule to the Horn of Africa country for the first time since Siad Barre’s ouster. Thirteen previous attempts have failed.