African Union troops fighting al-Qaida-linked Islamists in the failed state of Somalia have a $10 million funding gap which has delayed the deployment of reinforcements and lifesaving equipment, officials said Saturday.
Senior commanders say the lack of cash is hampering recent advances against the Islamists, discouraging countries from sending troops and may have cost lives.
The shortfall comes as AU troops have taken control of the Somali capital from the Islamist al-Shabab militia for the first time since their mission began in 2007. Last month Kenyan troops crossed the border and opened a second front against al-Shabab, which has been weakened by a famine in its southern strongholds.
But AU commanders say progress should be faster. The 9,100-strong AU mission was authorized to reach 12,000 a year ago but has not yet reached its full strength. Countries have been slow to deploy, partly because of concerns over funding. The AU mission had a budget of $472 million in 2011, but most of the money is taken up by wages, transport and operational costs.
Countries that contribute troops to the force _ currently Uganda and Burundi _ are supposed to be paid from a U.N.-administered fund for equipment like tanks, armored vehicles, ambulances, fuel trucks and even soap and bedding for soldiers. The rent helps pay to replace equipment destroyed in battle or worn down by the salty, sandy conditions.
But neither Uganda nor Burundi have received money for their equipment since March and there is no money in the fund to pay them. So far, they are owed $10 million, said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for the AU force.
"Sometimes the coffers are dry and other times, bureaucracy delays the process," Ankunda said. "We've been having 2,000 Ugandan troops ready to deploy but there is no equipment for them. The result is, you have less forces on the ground to maintain operational momentum."
The delays in paying for equipment have also discouraged other countries from contributing to the AU force, he said.
Burundi is supposed to send another 1,000 soldiers within weeks, and Djibouti should send more than 800 by the end of the year. Either Uganda or Sierra Leone should send more troops at the beginning of next year.
"Several other countries would have deployed forces if the international community gave assurances on sufficient logistical and equipment support as well as reimbursement," Ankunda said.
Uganda has also delayed sending four helicopters to Somalia because they say there is no cash to maintain them. The AU mission currently has no air support. Wounded soldiers had to be evacuated by road when scores of Burundian soldiers were killed and wounded in a battle last month. Ambulance crews must sometimes fight their way through ambushes and medics say the delays can be fatal. Uganda says it would cost $20 million to deploy, fuel and maintain the helicopters for a year.
"The helicopters are ready to go now," said Lt. Col. Felix Kulaigye, the Ugandan army spokesman. "It is very critical. You can do operations, you can do casualty evacuations, you can do quick resupplies. Given the state of roads in Somalia, they would be very handy ... We will send them when the U.N. has money to pay for them."
The AU force is currently supporting the weak U.N.-backed government against the al-Shabab. Somalia has not had a functional government since 1991, when clan warlords overthrew a socialist dictator then turned on each other. Western intelligence agencies now fear that al-Shabab may use training camps in the lawless nation to plan attacks on foreign nations.