On the front lines of Mogadishu's streets, Islamist militants battle African Union troops. Standing alongside the peacekeepers are members of an American-run team of advisers, former military men who play a little-known but key role in the war against al-Shabab.
Aside from covert raids by special operations forces, the U.S. government has not been involved militarily in Somalia since the intervention almost two decades ago that culminated in the Black Hawk Down battle. But a Washington-based company has been quietly working in one of the world's most dangerous cities to help an AU peacekeeping force protect the Somali government from al-Qaida-linked Islamist insurgents.
While troops struggle to get control of this shattered capital that has been filling with refugees fleeing famine in southern Somalia, The Associated Press got rare access to the military advisers, providing a first look into their work.
The men employed by Bancroft Global Development live in small trailers near Mogadishu's airport but often go into the field. It's dangerous work _ two Bancroft men were wounded last month.
Among the advisers are a retired general from the British marines, an ex-French soldier involved in a coup in Comoros 16 years ago, and a Danish political scientist.
Funded by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Bancroft has provided training in a range of military services, from bomb disposal and sniper training to handing out police uniforms.
Michael C. Stock, the American head of Bancroft, said his men share information with the FBI about bomb materials and the DNA of suicide bombers, who sometimes turned out to be Somali-American youths from the Midwest. Stock said his company receives no recompense for sharing information with the FBI.
Stock strongly objects if "mercenary" is used to describe his men. Instead he describes Bancroft as a non-governmental organization dedicated to finding permanent solutions to violent conflict. His men say they are trying to stabilize a country ravaged by 20 years of civil war and now a famine estimated to have killed 29,000 children in the past three months.
"We take calculated risks to be side by side with our protegees," said Stock, who visits Mogadishu only intermittently and for short periods of time, believing it is best not to have Americans working in Mogadishu. "It gives us credibility with them. They know we know what we are talking about."
At their beach-side camp in Mogadishu, diplomats, journalists and aid workers swap tip-offs by the bar. Stories fly through the air faster than the bats that hunt in the shadows, a way to unwind after a day of tense work.
Richard Rouget, a cigar-smoking, poetry-quoting, whiskey-drinking former big game hunter and right-hand man of French mercenary Bob Denard, has a long scar on his thigh from getting shot in Somalia last year. Another round slammed into the chest plate of his body armor.
Much of Mogadishu in recent years has been held by al-Shabab, militants who have denied many aid agencies access to their territory which is the epicenter of the famine. The AU force, which supports the weak U.N.-backed Somali government, only took full control of the bombed-out capital after the Islamists withdrew from their bases there on Saturday.
"They have gone from their bases but their fighters are still around. We're probably going to see them using bomb attacks, assassinations, a type of guerrilla war," said AU force commander Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha.
The Bancroft advisers camp out with AU soldiers on the front lines, training them to fight in urban areas and dispose of bombs. When the AU first arrived in 2008, there were dozens of bomb attacks. Nearly 100 soldiers died in such attacks in that first year, and around 20 in the second. The AU hasn't lost a soldier to a roadside bomb in over a year.
The U.S. State Department has funded the company's training in Somalia of soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, who comprise the AU peacekeeping force, in marksmanship and bomb disposal. Other funding has come from the U.N. The contracts have totaled $12.5 million since 2008, the year the company started working in Somalia, Stock said.
Earlier this week, Martinus "Rocky" Van Blerk swept the road to Mogadishu's port for bombs, blew up a grenade found in a newly taken al-Shabab base and answered two calls about suspected bombs. The defused mortar shells and bomb components lie rusting in a pile near the airport; interesting or unusual devices and remains from suicide bombers are sent to the FBI for analysis.
"That's where I blew up the bodies of those two suicide bombers last week," Van Blerk told AP at a newly taken al-Shabab base, pointing to a dip in the sand and a charred wall spattered with dark residue. The bombers were shot before they could detonate their suicide vests.
Wearing government uniforms, they had attacked with machine guns. They shot one of Van Blerk's South African Bancroft colleagues as well as a contractor from a demining company and 10 Ugandan soldiers trained in bomb disposal. The demining contractor and six of the Ugandans died. Dark trails of blood smear the floor inside the house where the trainer crawled for cover. Another Bancroft employee was shot in the stomach the day before but survived.
Militants have carried out three such "forced entry" attacks by men wearing suicide vests and firing small arms in the last two months. It's a relatively new tactic by Somali insurgents, used successfully elsewhere by al-Qaida.
"See here?" Van Blerk waved at to a row of roofless, bullet-scarred buildings in Mogadishu. "This is where they rammed my vehicle with a car bomb," referring to an attack in 2008.
In June, Van Blerk's men found their first explosively formed projectile _ or EFP _ a type of bomb commonly used in Iraq and seen in Afghanistan that can penetrate armored vehicles. It had never been seen in Somalia before June and is evidence of foreign fighters training Somalia's Islamist militants. Western intelligence has long feared that terrorists sought to use the lawless nation as a training ground.
The Bancroft team this week was discussing their marksmanship training program. Their idea was to encourage the peacekeepers to use sharpshooters instead of mortars, which sometimes hit residential neighborhoods and kill civilians. They train the Burundian and Ugandan soldiers in the AU force in marksmanship. Now a list of no-fire zones is pinned to the wall of their office.
"We had a problem with indiscriminate indirect fire, so we encouraged the AU to use snipers instead," said Rouget, referring to weapons like mortars. "It's discriminate, accurate."
Lt. Julius Aine, one of the Ugandan soldiers trained by Bancroft, said the training has helped his men be more professional.
"The major lessons have been about fighting in built-up areas," he said, looking out at the smashed ruins of houses so full of bullet holes they resembled concrete lace. "We are used to the bush, not fighting in the streets. This has really helped us."
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