MOGADISHU (Reuters) - African Union peacekeepers have turned Somalia's biggest port into a thriving business centre providing a vital lifeline to war-weary residents.
Speaking after a cargo ship chartered by the United Nations to deliver food aid docked in the Mogadishu harbor, the port's AU commander, Captain Cyprian Odong, said his soldiers had been able to turn it into one of the safest corners of a dangerous city.
"Ships are coming day and night," Odong told reporters, flanked by other officers from AMISOM, the AU mission in the Horn of Africa nation. "Security at the port has really improved since we took over in January. People move freely."
Nearby, soaked bare-chested porters swarmed over vessels to unload their cargos, mostly of food. A rickety white boat with Somali marine officials onboard acted as traffic controller, directing ships to anchor.
Two AMISOM dinghies mounted with heavy machineguns and carrying troops clutching AK-47 rifles patrolled further out at sea, while heavily armed soldiers on the shore guarded the gates into the harbor.
"We get cargo from Dubai, some from Indian, Pakistan and now from Mombasa ... The ships are bringing in food," Odong said, his head pressed to a radio telephone with a long aerial.
"Our mission in Mogadishu is to support the peace operation ... It is very hard but we are trying."
About 2,600 AU peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi have been unable to stem a persistent Islamist insurgency in Somalia's capital -- and like the AU mission in Sudan's Darfur region, they complain of being under-funded and under-staffed.
Built by the Italians before Somalia gained independence from Rome in 1961, the harbor is about 2,500 meters long with several piers where big ships anchor, and a sandy beach to the north that is often filled with swimming children.
Since closing to commercial vessels for nearly 15 years after former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords in 1991, the harbor briefly opened during a strict but relatively peaceful Islamist reign in June 2006. It closed down again after they were ousted at the end of that year.
Since then, continuing lawlessness in the white-washed city has deterred many would-be investors -- even though the run-down port and some determined businessmen have defied the anarchy.
In January 2007, several mortar shells fired by insurgents opposed to Somalia's interim government hit the harbor, killing at least 5 people and temporarily disrupting port operations.
Up to a million people out of Somalia's total population of nine million currently live as refugees after 17 years of war.
The United Nations says nearly 20, 000 people flee Mogadishu every month to escape Iraq-style attacks including assassinations, grenade blasts and roadside bombings that have left parts of city completely deserted.
Mustafa Al-Jendi, the captain of the Fade 1 cargo ship delivering 5,300 metric tons of food aid for the United Nations' World Food Program, recalls the old days under the Barre regime when the city was at peace.
"Mogadishu was beautiful then. We used to dock and go to enjoy the city life. Nowadays, there is fighting everyday. At night you hear loud explosions. But the port is safe," he told Reuters, smiling as he steered the vessel towards the port.
(Editing by Daniel Wallis)
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