* African force in Somalia has 17,700 peacekeepers
* AMISOM has pushed al Shabaab from urban centers
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, May 9 (Reuters) - As many as 3,000 African Union peacekeepers have been killed in Somalia in recent years in an attempt to end an Islamist insurgency and bring stability to the Horn of Africa nation, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.
"I want to pay tribute to the countries and to their soldiers who paid such an enormously heavy price," U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters.
"You would be shocked to learn that maybe it is up to 3,000 AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) soldiers that have been killed during these years that AMISOM has been there," he said.
The 17,700 strong African Union force began deploying to Somalia in 2007. It includes troops from Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Djibouti.
"Uganda, Burundi have paid a tremendous price," he added. "The Kenyan troops are, of course, also a large part of AMISOM."
By way of comparison, 3,096 U.N. peacekeepers have died since 1948, according to the website of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Somalia is only just emerging from two decades of civil war. Its government is struggling to rebuild a country riven by clan divisions and whose infrastructure and institutions are in tatters.
A newly appointed parliament last year elected a new president, the first vote of its kind since the toppling of former military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
African Union peacekeepers have been largely responsible for pushing al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab out of the capital Mogadishu and other urban centers in the past two years, but the group is still able to launch major attacks, including a suicide bombing on Sunday that killed at least eight people.
Eliasson said on the sidelines of a donor conference in London earlier this week that sought pledges to rebuild Somalia that the United Nations has given strong backing to the country's new leadership. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Philip Barbara)