By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - 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 security minister said on Friday.
Minister Wilson Mukasa said the decision was irreversible and another Cabinet minister would explain Uganda's position at the United Nations in New York. However, it was not immediately clear if an irrevocable decision had been taken.
U.N. diplomats told Reuters the Ugandan delegation, which was led by Ruhakana Rugunda, special envoy and minister of information and communications technology, did not threaten to withdraw troops from international peacekeeping missions during discussions with U.N. 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 U.N. Security Council this month, also made no mention of threats to pull out troops. The information was made available to Reuters by India's U.N. mission.
Ugandan troops account for more than a third of the 17,600 U.N.-mandated African peacekeepers battling al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels in Somalia and their withdrawal could hand an advantage to al Shabaab.
Its soldiers, backed by U.S. special forces, are also leading the hunt for fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony in Central African Republic, with some stationed in South Sudan.
In a leaked report, a U.N. Group of 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 nicknamed "the Terminator".
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 U.N. 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 neighbors 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.
A Ugandan army spokesman, Felix Kulayigye, 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.
U.N. 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 U.N. 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 Shabaab militants 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 unraveling the security gains that allowed the first presidential elections in more than four decades to be held in the capital in September.
Somalia's poorly equipped and ill-disciplined army is more a loose affiliation of rival militias than a cohesive fighting force loyal to a single president.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab'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 Reuters.
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 U.N. Security Council's Group of Experts, a body that monitors compliance with the U.N. 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.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York, Drazen Jorgic and Yara Bayoumy in Nairobi, Feisal Omar and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Justin Dralaze in Kampala; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by James Macharia and David Brunnstrom)