Addis Ababa - An African summit on Tuesday discussed raising thousands more troops for a peacekeeping force in Somalia after defusing a potentially damaging row over Sudan.
The force, essential to avoid a dangerous vacuum when Ethiopian troops leave Somalia within weeks, needs 4 000 more troops to bring it up to projected strength of almost 8 000.
Ethiopia, whose military might enabled Somalia's interim government to crush Islamists who threatened to overthrow it, says its mission is complete.
Officials were lobbying African countries at the summit to contribute more troops.
While the presidents met, European aid chief Louis Michel said the interim government had agreed to hold a broad reconciliation conference of clan and religious leaders and political groups to discuss the turbulent country's future.
Europe, the United States and Ethiopia had called on President Abdullahi Yusuf to open up to as many factions as possible, particularly moderate Islamists and powerful clan leaders, in order to stabilise the anarchic nation.
Michel said after meeting Yusuf he was impressed by his commitment to reconciliation and the EU would release €15-million (about R142-million) to finance the AU peacekeeping force.
The European money had been made conditional on the government reaching out to defeated Islamists and other parties.
In a keynote address to the meeting of the 53-nation African Union on Monday, its top diplomat, Alpha Oumar Konare, chastised African countries for not moving more quickly to provide troops.
"We cannot simply wait for others to do the work in our place," he said, warning of chaos if troops were not deployed.
Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi have promised soldiers while Mozambique, Ghana and others are still deciding. Many countries are reluctant to send forces to Somalia, one of the most dangerous locations in the world, where gunmen have ruled through 15 years of anarchy.
Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi says a third of his troops have withdrawn from Somalia, after helping the government there to crush the Islamists in a two-week war. He said at the weekend he would pull out the rest of his forces within weeks and the AU needed to deploy its first units by mid-February.
Meles was also critical at the delay in fulfilling pledges of financial aid for the force from the European Union and United States.
The first day of the two-day meeting was dominated by a dispute over whether Sudan should take the rotating chairmanship of the AU, promised a year ago, despite a flood of international condemnation of violence in its Darfur region.
But a group of senior leaders, working on the sidelines of the summit, managed to defuse the issue more swiftly than expected by handing the chairmanship to Ghana, seen as a neutral candidate and a good choice because it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence this year.
AU observers said the speed with which the dispute was resolved was a tribute to the determination of African leaders to defuse an issue which could have undermined the credibility of the pan-regional organisation
Swedes reported dead in Somalia
A number of Swedish citizens are reported to have been killed in fighting in Somalia. The Swedes in question had joined Islamist militias in their battle with the country's interim government, a spokesman for the government, Abdirahman Dinari, told Sveriges Radio.
Dinari's account follows a number of previously unconfirmed reports suggesting that several Swedish citizens had been captured by the interim government.
"They came, they participated and we have seen their documents. Some of them have fallen. We are on the trail of several of them, while others are in prison. They were arrested when trying to cross the border to Kenya," said Dinari.
The government spokesman would not say how many Swedes had been killed or imprisoned. Since it has not collated all the relevant information, the Somali government has yet to inform Swedish authorities on the number of casualties and arrests.
"We have been hearing rumours like this for a long time but nothing has been confirmed," said foreign ministry press officer Nina Ersman.
Confirming such rumours is rendered difficult by the fact that Sweden, in common with all other EU countries, does not have an embassy in Somalia.
Figures presented by the Swedish embassy in neighbouring Kenya suggest that there are at least 125 Swedes in Somalia but such data may be unreliable, according to the foreign ministry
"We have no official figures. It is entirely impossible to make this kind of judgment," said Ersman.
"We have been advising people for a long time not to travel to Somalia, since we do not have any representation there. We have also encouraged anybody already in the country to leave," she added.
Arab League Chairman Urges Somali President to Maintain Reconciliation in AU Summit
Secretary of the Arab League Amir Mousa and Somali president Abdullahi Yususf Ahmed met in the African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Monday during the first phase of the AU summit.
The two leaders raised issues regarding the rational solution for the crisis and increase of violence against the interim government in Somalia.
Amir Mousa greatly endorsed the ongoing reconciliation process by the Somali president, Mr. Yusuf, pointing out that the only way of achieving a lasting political solution for Somalia crisis was to let all the different parties in the country join the government.
He said it was vital for the government to proceed the negotiations among parties, including clans. "Without the reconciliation process, Somalia will not be able to stand on its feet", he said.
Despite pledges of sending peacekeeping troops to Somalia made by many countries, Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi have formally revealed they have mobilized their troops for deployment to Somalia.
The meeting comes as Somali government condemned the Arab League in the past for being biased with the routed Union of Islamic Courts.
The League alleges that it is impartially involved in mediating the challenging groups in the war-torn country in the Horn of Africa.