Baidoa's police chief told the Associated Press: "This is the first batch of African peacekeepers to be deployed in Somalia."

Mohamed Madey Issaq, the governor of Baidoa, and Somali military officials reportedly welcomed the troops at the airport.

"Thirty-five officers from Uganda came out and the plane left," Ali Mohamed Adan, a customs officer, told Reuters news agency.

'No troops'
 
The Ugandan government has denied the reports

"There are no [Ugandan] troops in Baidoa. There are no troops in Somalia," captain Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the AU mission, said. "We're leaving next week."

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The African Union is planning to send 8,000 peacekeepers to Somalia but, so far, only half of that number have been pledged by member countries.

The United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of the force, which will have to confront growing violence in Mogadishu, in a unanimous vote on February 20.

Many civilians have fled the capital because of frequent shootings, mortar and bomb attacks since the Union of Islamic Courts, which had controlled much of central and southern Somalia, was forced out by troops from the interim government and Ethiopia.

Nigeria, Burundi, Malawi and Ghana have also offered to send troops to the Horn of Africa country.

Suicide attacks

The Islamic courts has threatened to carry out suicide attacks against the African peacekeepers.

Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, has said his troops will not try to disarm groups of fighters in Mogadishu.
  
"We are not going to disarm the Somali militias because if we empower the Somali people, it will be up to them to decide whether it is necessary to disarm," Museveni told a gathering troops due to leave for Somalia.
 
"We don't go to Somalia to impose peace on the Somali people, but to help empower them to rebuild their country and help them to rebuild their army. That is our line of responsibility," he said.

The Ugandan soldiers arrived in Somalia after the African Union made an urgent appeal on Wednesday for funding for the mission.

Funding shortage

The amount of money pledged for the six month operation - mainly from the European Union and the United States - falls well short of the estimated cost.

Many Mogadishu residents have fled
the violence in the capital [AFP]
"We are running out of time," Bering Mtimkulu, head of the AU's peace support operation division, said.

"We need urgent assistance from the international community to help us expedite the deployment of the AU peace force in Somalia."

The European Union said it January that it was only prepared to contribute if Abdullahi Yusuf, the Somali president, took steps towards reconciliation in the deeply divided country.

And, on Thursday, Yusuf announced that a national reconciliation conference in Mogadishu would begin on April 16 and last for two months.

"There will be 3,000 participants from outside and inside the country," he told the Somali parliament.