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Somalia disbands UAE program to pay and train hundreds of soldiers

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somalia has disbanded a United Arab Emirates program to train some of its troops in a fresh sign that a dispute in the Gulf involving Qatar is spilling into the volatile country in the Horn of Africa.

FILE PHOTO: Somalia's newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (R) flanked by outgoing president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (L) carries their National flag during the hand-over ceremony at the Presidential palace in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

The government will take over paying and training the soldiers in the program, Defence Minister Mohamed Mursal Abdirahman told Somalia’s state news agency SONNA on Wednesday.

The UAE has trained hundreds of troops since 2014 as part of an effort boosted by an African Union military mission to defeat an Islamist insurgency and secure the country for the government, which is backed by Western nations, Turkey and the United Nations.

Analysts say Somalia’s relations with UAE are strained by a dispute between Qatar and Saudi because Mogadishu has refused to take sides. Arab states have strong trading links with and influence in Somalia, but that is offset by the sway of Qatar and its ally Turkey, one of Somalia’s biggest foreign investors.

“Somalia will fully take over (its troops) trained by the UAE ... Those forces will be added to the various battalions of the Somalia National Army,” Abdirahman said, adding that the troops would be integrated into other units on Thursday.

There was no immediate comment from the UAE government.

Somali security staff seized $9.6 million at Mogadishu airport on Sunday from a plane that had landed from the UAE.

On Tuesday, the UAE denounced the seizure of the money, which it said was destined to pay the soldiers. The Mogadishu government said it was investigating what the money was for.

The seizure has fueled a belief among many Somalis that foreign powers cause their country’s problems, analysts said. Somalia has lacked a strong central government since 1991.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Tuesday his government was trying to resolve the issue with Mogadishu but Abdirahman’s statement casts doubt on progress.

The Gulf state is one of the main donors to Somalia’s security sector, according to a report by the International Peace Institute think-tank.

Last year the United States suspended food and fuel aid for most of Somalia’s armed forces over corruption concerns. Other military donors include Turkey, which has a military base in Somalia.

An official from Somalia’s foreign affairs ministry told Reuters the contract with the UAE to train its security forces expired in 2016, though it was unclear how the program appeared to have continued.

Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg