GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations envoy for Somalia called on Tuesday for more military support for African troops to counter al Shabaab, the Islamist militant group which has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on Kenya's Westgate mall.
Nicholas Kay, U.N. special representative for Somalia, condemned the attack and said that there was a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to help bring peace to Somalia.
"Security remains the number one challenge, the control and defeating of al Shabaab is key to this," Kay told a news briefing in Geneva. He said the group had about 5,000 militants and posed an international threat.
Kay said he would go to the United Nations in New York this week to press for more support for the military effort by AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia.
"They have, for example, not a single military helicopter for a campaign in a country that is the size of Afghanistan physically. This is a mission that needs extra resources in terms of enablers - helicopters and armored vehicles, and possibly a surge also in numbers of troops."
AMISOM's mandate includes 12 helicopters but none has yet been contributed to the mission, which has around 17,700 troops, mainly drawn from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya.
Kay said the force was now spread thinly because of its success in pushing back al Shabaab, adding that he hoped African troop contributing countries would send a mix of attack and support helicopters.
He said the cost of the extra effort would be extremely small compared with what the international community had spent on crises in Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq, but the price of failure or walking away would be very high.
"The Westgate attacks show that the threat from al Shabaab is international, we have seen it before in Kampala and I fear we could see it again elsewhere too. The ideology and terrorist intent respects no borders," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles)