By Edith Honan
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Somalia must bolster its police presence in towns retaken from the al Shabaab militant group in order to free its overstretched military to focus on offensive action, the prime minister said in an interview on Friday.
Omar Sharmarke said the plan reflects a new phase in Somalia's fight against al Shabaab, which continues to launch regular assaults against Somali security forces despite losing large swaths of territory.
But he conceded that cash-strapped Somalia, which recently cut its budget and is already struggling to pay its overstretched military, might not immediately have funds to pay for it.
"Now, the focus is going to be on the enemy, rather than on territory," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. "What we're trying to do is take the offensive. You can't keep military soldiers guarding cities."
Al Shabaab has been driven out of major towns and coastal strongholds since an African Union peacekeeping force and the Somali national army launched an offensive last year.
But the group, which wants to topple Somalia's Western-backed government, still holds rural areas, such as the Juba Valley corridor that leads to the strategic southern port of Kismayu.
Sharmarke said the idea to reorganize security forces was in part a response to al Shabaab's attack last month on an African Union base in Somalia, killing at least 12 Ugandan soldiers, and the group taking control of several towns in recent weeks.
The Somali prime minister also said the government is committed to holding elections on schedule, before President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's first term ends next August.
In July, the government ruled out holding a democratic "one man, one vote" election, citing security concerns. Instead, Somalia will see a process similar to the one held in 2012, when elders appointed members of parliament, who then named the president.
Somalia will begin a national consultation on the election on Oct. 14.
"There is outstanding unanimity from the international community that the elections should be held on time," Nick Kay, the U.N. special envoy to Somalia, said in a separate interview.
But Kay said the process must be more inclusive, involving civil society and Womens' groups in a meaningful way, to move beyond a parliament that is "old and male."
"Any parliament should be like a mirror, so when (the population) looks into it, they see themselves reflected," said Kay. "And at the moment the mirror chosen in 2012 is an imperfect mirror."
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)