KAMPALA, Dec 11 (Reuters) - Uganda will not send a peacekeeping force to Somalia unless security improves and the risk of war in the Horn of Africa country diminishes, a senior government official said on Monday.
"We have decided that at this particular time, we should not go to Somalia," Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Oryem Okello told Reuters in comments that appeared to row back from Kampala's previously stated position of willingness to go in.
"The situation has deteriorated rapidly -- it risks all-out war," Okello added in a telephone interview.
Last week, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan by east Africa's regional body IGAD to send peacekeepers to Somalia to bolster President Abdullahi Yusuf's interim government.
Of the two nations deemed suitable to send peacekeepers -- Uganda and Sudan -- only Uganda had agreed in principle to commit troops, setting aside a battalion of 700 to 800 soldiers.
Diplomats say politicians, however, are deeply divided over the plan.
Okello's comments, which came after two days of fighting in Somalia between pro-government troops and rival Islamists, seemed to contradict those of the army and the state minister for defence, Ruth Nankabirwa.
She told Reuters last week the Ugandan force was mandated and ready to go as soon as parliament approved it.
The powerful Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC), which controls Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia, has warned foreign troops on Somali soil will be attacked as enemies.
They rejected the U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution, warning it would "add fuel to the fire" of a potential war with the Western-backed government.
"The Islamic Courts are still expanding. They're taking up combat positions," Okello said. "Our troops are not being trained for combat, they're being trained for peacekeeping."
Diplomats say the United States is pressuring Uganda to take the mission because it wants a regional ally to fight the Islamists, who defeated U.S.-backed warlords when they took Mogadishu in June after 15 years of anarchy in the capital.
Okello said when the offer of troops was made in September, Uganda had assumed the Islamists would advance no further than the territories in southern Somalia they already control.
But he said intelligence reports indicated they wanted to expand into the self-declared enclave of Somaliland.
"It no longer looks like they want to stay put," he said.
But he added that Uganda might still commit troops at a later date, if the African Union, which supports the IGAD plan, can find other countries to contribute.
Somali government sources say they hope Nigeria might come on board and contribute troops too.
Despite widespread fears that a peacekeeping force rejected by the Islamists would be a magnet for foreign jihadists, the United Nations approved the plan with the explicit aim of propping up Yusuf's transitional government.
Diplomats say President Yoweri Museveni, a friend of Yusuf, is keenest on the deployment but many other Ugandan government officials regard it as a potential suicide mission.
Sudan rejects deployment of foreign troops in Somalia
Sudan has rejected the deployment of foreign troops in Somalia, considering plans against the Islamic courts as part of attacks on Islam and Islamic countries en the region.
At a press conference held Friday 8 December by the end of the Summit of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group in Khartoum, Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir expressed his opposition to any intervention of foreign troops in Somalia.
Al-Bashir who was for the first time talking about this sensitive regional issue, said Somalia is the unique country in Africa qualified to stay united because of the religion, ethnicity, and culture. He considered plots against the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) as part of the attack against Islam and Islamic countries in the region.
Al-Bashir with his public support for the UIC may anger his Ethiopian neighbour who denounces consistently the Islamist militias in Somalia. He also reinforces Addis Ababa fears from the nascent Asmara-Khartoum alliance.
Earlier his month, the United States asked the U.N. Security Council to help prop up Somaliaís shaky government with an African peacekeeping force that would exclude troops from bordering states such as Ethiopia.
Al-Bashir finds in the Somali situation a similar case to his opposition to the deployment of the international troops in Sudanís war-torn region of Darfur.
His stand is comparable to Eritrean government which is backing Sudanís rejection of the international troops in Darfur because of the border row with Ethiopia and the unwilling of the UN to press Ethiopia to withdraw from a disputed area.
The African Union and regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, which brokered the transitional governmentís installation in 2004, have long been pushing for regional peacekeepers to support it.
But word of the U.S. initiative set off alarms when the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and European experts warned the US proposal could backfire by undermining the interim government, strengthening the Islamists and leading to wider war.
Islamic officials in Somalia say militiamen advancing to key town near Ethiopian border
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) ó Islamic militiamen were moving on an Ethiopian border town to try to seal the 1,000-mile frontier and keep out any advancing Ethiopian troops while trapping those already in Somalia, an Islamic movement official said Monday.
"Our fighters, with a large number of battle wagons, are now advancing on Tiyeglow," said Mohamed Ibrahim Bilaal, an Islamic movement official.
"We will go to all border towns in our country to deprive our enemy of a route to enter into our country. Also we don't want the enemy inside Somalia to get an exit route to flee from it when the jihad starts," Bilaal told The Associated Press by telephone.
Somalia's transitional government, which is backed by Ethiopia against the growing threat posed by the Islamic movement, has sent about 700 troops to defend Tiyeglow, said Mohamed Ali Gaboobe, a government militia commander.
The latest military buildup further raises fears of intensified conflict in Somalia. The Council of Islamic Courts, which controls the Islamic militiamen, already has hundreds of combatants within striking distance of the transitional government in southern and central Somalia.
Tiyeglow is about 90 miles northeast of Baidoa, the only town the government controls. Tiyeglow, on the potholed main road between the Ethiopian border and Baidoa, is believed to be one of the towns through which Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia and may be on their supply route.
Both the transitional government and Ethiopia have consistently denied there are Ethiopian troops in Somalia, with Ethiopia saying it only has a few hundred military advisers helping the transitional government form a national army.
A confidential U.N. report obtained by the AP in October said that there are 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea inside Somalia backing the Islamic movement, in addition to 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops in Somalia or along the border backing the government. Eritrea denies having any troops in Somalia.
A Somali human rights group said Sunday it feared renewed fighting could lead to a repeat of past human rights violations, such as rape, torture, kidnapping and looting.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other.
A transitional government was formed two years but it has been unable to assert its authority over the country. Since June, the Council of Islamic Courts has seized Mogadishu and taken control of much of southern Somalia.