By Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Islamist rebels in Somalia can plot attacks like the Kenyan mall massacre because Somali government forces and allied African troops lack the soldiers and firepower needed to crush the insurgents for good, a senior Somali official said on Thursday.
Abdirahman Omar Osman, an adviser and spokesman to the Somali presidency, said al Shabaab rebels occupied swathes of remote countryside beyond the reach of Somalia's ill-equipped army and an over-stretched African Union peacekeeping force.
From their rural hideouts, the group's commanders were able to mastermind deadly assaults inside Somalia's borders and beyond, Osman said. Al Shabaab says it was behind the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi on September 21, when gunmen sprayed people with bullets and hurled grenades, killing at least 67.
A failure to equip the military offensive against al Shabaab in Somalia with helicopter gunships and heavy weaponry was hampering efforts to build upon the security gains won over the past two years, Osman said.
"It gives al Shabaab leeway to plan such attacks as we're not pressing forward," Osman told Reuters. "They're sitting there, comfortable, planning attacks and their strategy."
The United Nations estimates the group numbers about 5,000 militants. The mall raid bore out fears that although al Shabaab was weakened the group would still seek to use Somalia as a launch pad for strikes against its east African neighbours.
In a sign of Kenya's frustration at the festering instability in Somalia in the wake of the Westgate assault, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Tuesday told Somalia's leaders to "put their house in order."
Kenyan troops are among the AU's 17,700-strong AMISOM force fighting al Shabaab, Somalia's most powerful militia which emerged from the ruins of an Islamist administration routed by Ethiopian forces in late 2006.
"FINISH THE JOB"
Osman told Reuters the fight against al Shabaab was a global problem. Somalia, he said, did not have a single military helicopter to use in the battle against al Shabaab, while its forces lacked ammunition and large calibre weapons.
Although an arms embargo on Somalia has been partially lifted, Osman said the cash-strapped government could not afford to buy weapons and ammunition.
"Why they are not supporting us to finish the job is something we cannot understand," the spokesman said.
Somalia's allies are, though, wary of arming a military that is more a collection of rival militia's than a cohesive fighting force and dogged by corruption. Government ammunition has frequently ended up on the black market and in some attacks in Mogadishu, suicide bombers have worn official military fatigues.
Osman said the national army was now better trained and more disciplined.
"Trust has to start somewhere. We cannot move forward with this," he said. In a sign, however, that trust remains in short supply, an embargo on heavy arms remains in place.
Last week, Uganda's military chief, General Katumba Wamala, said the AMISOM needed more soldiers if it was to extend territorial gains against al Shabaab. Uganda is the biggest contributor to AMISOM.
A further 2,000-7,000 troops were required, he said. That would place an extra burden on the main financiers of AMISOM's operations, including the European Union and Washington.
"For me, the bill of 5,000 soldiers is nil compared with the benefits of a secure and stable Somalia," Osman said.
(Editing by James Macharia and Angus MacSwan)