MOGADISHU, Somalia — A special U.N. military force to protect aid workers deployed for the first time in the war-ravaged Somali capital Sunday, amid a wave of attacks blamed on al-Qaida-linked Shebab insurgents.
The 400-strong "defensive" guard force of Ugandan troops, based at the heavily fortified Mogadishu airport, is "mandated to protect U.N. staff and installations" in the capital.
Despite the government's insistence that it has improved security, the Shebab continue to carry out bombings -- including targeting aid workers — in their bid to overthrow Somalia's internationally backed but fragile leadership.
Shebab suicide commandos last June blasted their way into a fortified U.N. base in central Mogadishu, killing 16 people.
"The deployment of the U.N. Guard Unit is an important step as we continue to expand our operations in support of the Somali people," U.N. envoy to Somalia Nicholas Kay said at a ceremony Sunday to mark the start of operations.
Ugandan troops are already in Somalia as a key part of the U.N.-mandated African Union force AMISOM, which is fighting the Shebab.
The insurgents have been driven out of fixed positions in Somalia's major towns by AMISOM troops, but still regularly launch guerrilla raids.
Recent Shebab attacks have targeted key areas of government or the security forces, in an apparent bid to discredit claims by the authorities that they are winning the war against the Islamist fighters.
"We are proud to join the U.N. family, and will do our utmost to ensure the U.N. is able to continue its work in Mogadishu under safe and secure conditions," said Uganda's deputy army commander Charles Angina said.
Continued conflict, compounded by poor rains and funding shortfalls, are threatening the few gains made in Somalia since an extreme famine less than three years ago, with the United Nations and aid agencies warning that the troubled country could be sliding back into a food crisis.