By Drazen Jorgic
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United States expects Uganda to keep its peacekeeping forces in Somalia despite a threat to withdraw in protest at a U.N. report, a senior State Department official said on Monday.
The government in Kampala said on Friday it would pull out of peacekeeping missions in Africa unless the United Nations amends a report accusing it of supporting rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs, who met Yoweri Museveni last week, said the Ugandan president had raised concerns about the U.N. report but that she expected him to keep peacekeeping troops on the ground.
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 the weakened al Shabaab rebels.
Backed by U.S. special forces, the soldiers are also leading the hunt for fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony in Central African Republic, with some stationed in South Sudan.
"I fully expect because of (Museveni's) commitment to peace and security in the region that Uganda will continue to play the leadership role it has, both diplomatically and in terms of military security," Sherman told reporters in Nairobi.
Uganda and Rwanda have denied accusations in a leaked U.N. Group of Experts report which said the two neighbors were arming Congo's M23 rebels, whose warlord leader has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
The experts called for sanctions on those who violated an arms embargo.
Uganda's foreign ministry said over the weekend it was "inevitable" Ugandan forces would leave Somalia unless the U.N. corrected "false accusations" against the country.
Somalia's Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid told Reuters on Saturday he hoped Uganda would not pull out its troops at what he said was a critical moment in the fight against al Shabaab.
Sherman said the east and central Africa region needed Uganda's diplomatic and military leadership, which includes Museveni's chairmanship of peace talks between Congo, M23 rebels and Rwanda.
"President Museveni and Uganda have played critical roles, not only in terms of their military capabilities but their diplomatic capabilities to try to navigate, negotiate and mediate concerns in the region," she said. (Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Editing by Duncan Miriri and Robin Pomeroy)