UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday authorized an African force to protect Somalia’s government against an increasingly powerful Islamic militia, hoping to avert a broader regional conflict that could draw in neighboring countries.

It also lifted an arms embargo against the country to allow the force to be equipped.

The U.S.-sponsored resolution urges the Islamic movement that has taken control of the capital and most of southern Somalia in recent months to stop any further military expansion and join the government in peace talks.

It also threatens Security Council action against those who block peace efforts or attempt to overthrow the government. No measures were mentioned, but they could include sanctions.

The arms embargo against Somalia was imposed in 1992, a year after warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. A government was formed two years ago with the help of the U.N., but it has struggled to assert its authority against the Islamic militants.

Critics of the resolution, including some non-governmental organizations, accuse the Security Council of taking sides in the dispute between the government and the Islamic movement, which the U.S. has accused of harboring al-Qaida suspects.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the United States, like many other countries, is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Somalia and the possibility of a wider regional conflict. He said the regional force would be “a key element in preventing conflict.”

There are fears that Somalia could become a proxy battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought a border war in 1998-2000.

A confidential U.N. report obtained recently by the AP said 6,000 to 8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia or along the border, supporting the transitional government. It also said 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea were inside Somalia, supporting the Islamic militia. Eritrea denies having any troops in Somalia, while Ethiopia insists it has sent only a few hundred advisers.

The resolution authorizes a seven-nation East African group known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, and the African Union to establish “a protection and training mission in Somalia” for an initial period of six months.

It lifts the arms embargo on Somalia so the force can by supplied with weapons and military equipment and engage in technical training.

The resolution bans Somalia’s neighbors from sending soldiers – a provision demanded by European members of the Security Council who want to ensure the force’s aim is to promote peace.

The ban would prohibit participation in the force by troops from Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya – but not Uganda, which is the only country thus far to volunteer troops.

Council diplomats said IGAD envisions a force of eight battalions, each with 700 to 800 troops, but only two would be deployed in the first phase.

Bolton told the Security Council that the U.S. views the deployment of a regional force “as a critical element to help resume credible dialogue” between the transitional government and the Islamic movement.

“It will also help to create the conditions for Ethiopian and Eritrean disengagement from Somalia,” he said.

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