By Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - African troops in Somalia require helicopters and armored vehicles to counter al Shabaab, the Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on a Kenyan shopping mall, the U.N. envoy for Somalia said on Tuesday.
Nicholas Kay, U.N. special representative for Somalia, said more troops may also be necessary and called specifically for targeting three ports along the Somali coast that he said were operated by al Shabaab for illicit trade.
The group said on Tuesday its militants were still holed up in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi which they attacked at the weekend.
Al Shabaab has about 5,000 militants and poses a threat across Africa and beyond, Kaye said, adding that ridding Somalia of al Shabaab would help consolidate the Mogadishu central government's "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to help bring peace to the country.
"Security remains the number one challenge, the control and defeating of al Shabaab is key to this," he told a news briefing in Geneva.
"My understanding is that they are financing themselves a lot through taxation and trade," Kay said.
"They do control at least three of the minor ports of the coast of Somalia ... These ports must be high on the (list of) military targets," Kay said.
Al Shabaab has particularly profited from the illegal export of charcoal, which falls under sanctions laid down by the U.N. Security Council and is also against Somali law, he said. That annual trade is valued at some $35 million, he added.
"NOT A SINGLE MILITARY HELICOPTER"
Kay will go to the United Nations in New York this week to press for more support for the military effort by the "under-resourced" 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," he said.
"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 across the country.
He said the cost of the extra effort would be small compared with what the international community had spent on Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq, but the price of failure would be 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.
Asked about reports that the gunmen include Americans and possibly a British widow of a suicide bomber who took part in a deadly attack in London in 2005, Kay said:
"I have also seen the reports, it doesn't necessary surprise me because we have been aware for some time that al Shabaab has foreign fighters within Somalia among their ranks. These are part of the global jihadist movement and it wouldn't surprise me if they come from a variety of countries."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)