On manoeuvres with the troops trained to fight al-Shabaab

Paul Ames reports from Uganda on an EU mission to protect the Somali government

Belly-down in the grass, the Somali soldiers cock their Kalashnikovs and take aim. When the order comes, they squeeze the trigger and bellow out a chorus of: "Boom, bang, boom!"

The European Union instructors given the task of forming the core of Somalia's new model army have yet to entrust their students with live ammunition. So the men whose fighting techniques have been honed on the mean streets of Mogadishu are learning grenade-throwing with fist-sized rocks and target-shooting with empty rifles. "They are familiar with the AK-47," Lieutenant Jukka Vuorio, of the Finnish navy explains with some understatement. "We have to teach them to use it safely."

The EU has gathered 900 Somali recruits in a remote military base in the rolling hills of south-west Uganda, aiming to create the backbone of a force capable of breaking the grip that the al-Qa'ida-linked al-Shabaab movement and other Islamist militias have on much of Somalia.

The insurgents have the Western-backed government penned up in a sliver of land in Mogadishu, the capital, protected by Ugandan-led African Union troops.

Uganda paid a price for its engagement in Somalia on Sunday when two bomb blasts claimed the lives of 76 people watching the World Cup final in Kampala. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, sparking fears that the Somali jihadis are ready to widen the conflict through international terror attacks.

In Brussels, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton insisted the blasts would not diminish Europe's willingness to work with Uganda to "bring stability to the region". But after the disastrous American-led UN intervention in Somalia's civil war in the early 1990s, Western nations are reluctant to send troops.

The training camp in Bihanga is one example of how they are trying to make up for it. The weekend's attack underscored how strategically important Somalia and Uganda are. Even if they are unwilling to commit their own military resources, the urgency of stopping Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al-Qa'ida – and thwarting the pirates who have wreaked havoc on international shipping in the Indian Ocean – is lost on none of the Europeans.

They believe that the solution may be to train up local forces that just might be able to impose some sort of stability on the country. "One-thousand well-trained soldiers can make a difference," insists Swedish Major Johan Rudhe, the acting commander of the EU camp in Bihanga.

Warrant officer Abdullah Ibrahim Aden of the Somali army agrees, but like many others, this 28-year-old veteran of Mogadishu's street-fighting says the key to success will be the level of follow-up support he and his fellow trainees receive when they return to Somalia.

"If we are trained by the European Union and they continue to care about the way we things are in Somalia, we can take control away from al-Shabaab," he says. "But if the soldiers don't get paid and they don't get food, they will take their guns and split off."

That is exactly what happened with previous attempts by African nations to train Somali troops. In a sign of the growing international concern about the implications of an al-Shabaab victory, the United States is joining with the EU to ensure the Somalis do get paid. Washington is already supporting the EU mission by providing transport, uniforms and other equipment for the recruits, as well as a $100-a-month (£66) salary during the six-month course. "What has dogged previous efforts at security-sector reform is the fact that after the trainings, everybody washes their hands and leaves these boys with just the (Somali) government to take care of them," says Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"If the European Union and the Western partners undertake some form of long-term help for these units to ensure that they are well catered for, then ...the government may get the kind of military muscle it needs to begin to roll back the insurgency," Mr Abdi said by telephone from Nairobi.

The daily routine for the Somali recruits at Bihanga starts when they are awakened at 5am and taken for a run. After porridge for breakfast, most spend the day following basic training with Ugandan army instructors assisted by the EU. About 200 selected as potential officers or NCOs are split into platoon-sized groups and given specialised training by EU teams working through Somali-speaking Kenyan interpreters.

"You can see the improvements on a daily basis," says Captain Donal Burke, of the Irish Defence Forces. "The Somali trainees just want to learn, they want military knowledge and they want to fight al-Shabaab. There is a feeling their country is being held to ransom." A Portuguese team arrived at the beginning of July to teach urban-warfare techniques. The Germans are giving classes in radio communications; the Italians are teaching medical skills. A Finnish female officer is lecturing on human rights and gender issues, and French experts will be taking on the around 27 Somalis selected for officer training.

"They may have battle experience, but they need training. They fire from the hip like in the movies rather than taking aim from the shoulder," says Maj Rudhe, the camp's commander.

"They have no clue about the laws of combat, about communications, about how to save a friend who has been wounded, and we can give them that sort of skill," he said. "It's like having a guy who can play great football on the beach in Rio, but you still need to train him before he can play in the World Cup."

The selection of the troops sent for training was done by the Somali government with US-funded vetting to ensure none was under 18 or had any record of war crimes. The EU's insistence that the group be representative of a broad range of the country's clans and regions caused some problems. About 250 recruits from the breakaway Puntland region dropped out after a dispute with the Mogadishu government over where they would be deployed when they return to Somalia, explains Colonel Ricardo Gonzalez Elul, commander of the 120-strong EU mission.

The Spanish officer said he's optimistic that can be resolved so the Puntland troops can join the second intake of 1,000 trainees due to arrive later this year. Col Elul said about 10 "troublemakers" had also been sent home at the start of the mission for stirring up clan rivalries among the recruits.

"We knew it would happen before we arrived here, and it will happen in the future because it is an intrinsic issue within the Somali culture," Elul said. "It's not considered as a major concern."

One of the few English-speaking recruits, Aden, was a refugee in Kenya who returned to Mogadishu to serve as a paramedic with Somali government forces in 2006. He said there were few tensions among the Somalis billeted together on the base in Bihanga, but he warned the impression of unity was fragile. Whether the bombs on Kampala will strengthen or dilute that unity will only become clear with time.

"Relations among us are good," he said. "But you don't know what's going on in their minds because in Somalia you can't trust anyone, even your own brother."

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