Uganda will tell the United Nations it is withdrawing its forces from military operations in Somalia and other regional hotspots after the world body accused it of supporting Congolese rebels, the country’s security minister has said.
Wilson Mukasa said on Friday that the decision was irreversible and another cabinet minister would explain Uganda’s position at the United Nations in New York.
UN diplomats said that the Ugandan delegation, led by special envoy and information minister Ruhakana Rugunda, has not so far threatened to withdraw troops from international peacekeeping missions during discussions with UN officials in New York this week.
A read-out of the Ugandan delegation’s meeting on Friday with Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, the president of the UN security council this month, also made no mention of threats to pull out troops.
Ugandan troops account for more than a third of the 17,600 UN-mandated African peacekeepers battling al-Shabab rebels in Somalia and their withdrawal could hand an advantage to the al-Qaeda linked group.
Its soldiers, backed by US special forces, are also leading the hunt for fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony in the Central African Republic, with some stationed in South Sudan.
In a leaked report, a group of UN experts last month accused Uganda and Rwanda of supporting the so-called M23 rebel group commanded by Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord indicted by the International Criminal Court.
India’s statement said the Ugandan delegation expressed “grave concern” about the report of the Group of Experts, and added that the Security Council’s Congo sanctions committee had yet to formally consider the experts’ report.
Puri noted that “views expressed by the independent experts do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations,” the statement said. It added that Uganda was an important UN troop contributor playing a vital role in Somalia and elsewhere.
‘Tired of being maligned’
Mukasa said Uganda would withdraw troops from Somalia, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo to concentrate on domestic security.
“We are tired of being maligned even after sacrifices have been made to ensure that our friends, our neighbours are okay. The ‘thank you’ we get is that you are now aiding this, you are this and that, so we are tired,” he told reporters in Kampala.
Felix Kulayigye, a Ugandan army spokesperson, said the military had received no orders yet but was ready to act when it did.
“We’ll not stay an extra day in Somalia when we get that order,” he said.
UN diplomats said it was not clear whether Uganda meant the threats seriously or was merely trying to pressure security council members from taking action on the Group of Experts’ recommendations.
The experts called for UN sanctions against individuals supporting the M23 rebels.
The African force has been vital to propping up a string of interim governments in Somalia and driving al-Shabab fighters from all their urban strongholds over the last 15 months, including the capital, Mogadishu, and southern port of Kismayu.
A sudden reduction in its numbers, especially in Mogadishu, would risk unravelling the security gains that allowed the first presidential elections in more than four decades to be held in the capital in September.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al-Shabab’s military operation, said it was unaware of Uganda’s intention to withdraw and it would keep fighting the African peacekeepers.
“After Ugandans leave, what else, it will be easier to fight the remaining invaders. We shall finish them,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Uganda has earned significant Western support for deploying its soldiers to a war zone few foreign powers outside the region have the stomach for.
It also benefits financially for its AMISOM contribution while at the same time a troop presence in Somalia, Central African Republic and South Sudan gives the Ugandan military a big footprint across the region.
“It’s just politics and playing to the gallery. They won’t pull out. Things will be quietly settled behind closed doors with perhaps future reports not being so critical,” said London-based Somali-analyst Hamza Mohamed.
The confidential 44-page report by the UN security council’s Group of Experts, a body that monitors compliance with the UN sanctions and arms embargo in place for Congo, said M23 has expanded territory under its control, stepped up recruitment of child soldiers and summarily executed recruits and prisoners.
The report said Rwandan officials coordinated the setting up of the rebel movement as well as its military operations. Uganda’s more subtle support to M23 allowed its political branch to operate from within Kampala.
Uganda and Rwanda have repeatedly denied the accusations.