By Daniel Bases
UNITED NATIONS, May 26 (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to extend its mandate for African Union troops to stay in Somalia, and back it with more stable financing, to help the nascent government fight off hard-line Islamist rebels.
The 15-to-0 vote to keep peacekeepers (AMISOM) in Somalia for another eight months and support President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed also comes with a more stable source of financing.
"What is unique about it is that for the first time the Security Council has agreed to provide logistical support and to pay for that through U.N. assessed contributions," Britain’s U.N. Ambassador John Sawers told reporters after the vote.
"We understand it will be somewhere between $200 million and $300 million during the course of the year ahead. That money, once it is agreed within the U.N. system, will be guaranteed to support AMISOM," he said.
Neighboring states and Western security services fear Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for 18 years, could become a base for al Qaeda-linked militants and destabilize the Horn of Africa region unless the new government can defeat Islamist rebels.
Currently, large parts of south and central Somalia are under the control of hard-line al Shabaab insurgents and allied Islamist fighters.
A surge in violence this month has killed nearly 200 people in Mogadishu and driven some 60,000 residents from their homes. At least 53 people have died since Friday morning when the government attacked insurgent strongholds in the capital.
PHASES OF SUPPORT
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said sending a U.N. force to Somalia now was a high-risk move that would likely prompt attacks against the peacekeepers, and therefore has kept the U.N. blue-helmet peacekeepers out of the conflict.
Ban recommended in a report in April that the best approach is to build up support for AU peacekeepers already in Somalia and for Somali security forces.
The first phase would be to support the 4,300-strong AMISOM force consisting of Ugandans and Burundians and push toward its planned strength of 8,000. This includes building up the fledgling security forces of Somalia’s interim government.
If security conditions allowed, a second phase could involve what he called a "light United Nations footprint" by sending U.N. officials to Mogadishu to give political support, assist AMISOM and ensure aid delivery.
If this was successful, under Ban’s proposal the Security Council could then consider authorizing a U.N. peacekeeping force to take over from AMISOM.
The United Nations’ peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said earlier in May that Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, had offered to spearhead U.N. peacekeeping in the fellow Muslim country.
U.N. officials have long insisted a Muslim country should be in charge of any U.N. force sent to Somalia.
Pakistan and Bangladesh, have also pledged military support for an eventual mission, while Uruguay has pledged military observers, Le Roy added.
(Writing by Daniel Bases; additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Megan Davies in New York, editing by Vicki Allen)