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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — On the front lines of Mogadishu’s streets, Islamist militants battle African Union troops. Standing alongside the peacekeepers are members of an American-run team of advisers, former military men who play a little-known but key role in the war against al-Shabab.

Aside from covert raids by special operations forces, the U.S. government has not been involved militarily in Somalia since the intervention almost two decades ago that culminated in the Black Hawk Down battle. But a Washington-based company has been quietly working in one of the world’s most dangerous cities to help an AU peacekeeping force protect the Somali government from al-Qaida-linked Islamist insurgents.

While troops struggle to get control of this shattered capital that has been filling with refugees fleeing famine in southern Somalia, The Associated Press got rare access to the military advisers, providing a first look into their work.

The men employed by Bancroft Global Development live in small trailers near Mogadishu’s airport but often go into the field. It’s dangerous work — two Bancroft men were wounded last month.

Among the advisers are a retired general from the British marines, an ex-French soldier involved in a coup in Comoros 16 years ago, and a Danish political scientist.

Funded by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Bancroft has provided training in a range of military services, from bomb disposal and sniper training to handing out police uniforms.

Michael C. Stock, the American head of Bancroft, said his men share information with the FBI about bomb materials and the DNA of suicide bombers, who sometimes turned out to be Somali-American youths from the Midwest. Stock said his company receives no recompense for sharing information with the FBI.

Stock strongly objects if “mercenary” is used to describe his men. Instead he describes Bancroft as a non-governmental organization dedicated to finding permanent solutions to violent conflict. His men say they are trying to stabilize a country ravaged by 20 years of civil war and now a famine estimated to have killed 29,000 children in the past three months.

“We take calculated risks to be side by side with our protegees,” said Stock, who visits Mogadishu only intermittently and for short periods of time, believing it is best not to have Americans working in Mogadishu. “It gives us credibility with them. They know we know what we are talking about.”

At their beach-side camp in Mogadishu, diplomats, journalists and aid workers swap tip-offs by the bar. Stories fly through the air faster than the bats that hunt in the shadows, a way to unwind after a day of tense work.

Richard Rouget, a cigar-smoking, poetry-quoting, whiskey-drinking former big game hunter and right-hand man of French mercenary Bob Denard, has a long scar on his thigh from getting shot in Somalia last year. Another round slammed into the chest plate of his body armor.

Much of Mogadishu in recent years has been held by al-Shabab, militants who have denied many aid agencies access to their territory which is the epicenter of the famine. The AU force, which supports the weak U.N.-backed Somali government, only took full control of the bombed-out capital after the Islamists withdrew from their bases there on Saturday.

“They have gone from their bases but their fighters are still around. We’re probably going to see them using bomb attacks, assassinations, a type of guerrilla war,” said AU force commander Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha.

The Bancroft advisers camp out with AU soldiers on the front lines, training them to fight in urban areas and dispose of bombs. When the AU first arrived in 2008, there were dozens of bomb attacks. Nearly 100 soldiers died in such attacks in that first year, and around 20 in the second. The AU hasn’t lost a soldier to a roadside bomb in over a year.

The U.S. State Department has funded the company’s training in Somalia of soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, who comprise the AU peacekeeping force, in marksmanship and bomb disposal. Other funding has come from the U.N. The contracts have totaled $12.5 million since 2008, the year the company started working in Somalia, Stock said.

Earlier this week, Martinus “Rocky” Van Blerk swept the road to Mogadishu’s port for bombs, blew up a grenade found in a newly taken al-Shabab base and answered two calls about suspected bombs. The defused mortar shells and bomb components lie rusting in a pile near the airport; interesting or unusual devices and remains from suicide bombers are sent to the FBI for analysis.

“That’s where I blew up the bodies of those two suicide bombers last week,” Van Blerk told AP at a newly taken al-Shabab base, pointing to a dip in the sand and a charred wall spattered with dark residue. The bombers were shot before they could detonate their suicide vests.