Monday, May 11, 2009

Somalia's Al Shabab militants gain ground

Calm returned Monday after four days of heavy fighting in Mogadishu between the extremist group, Al Shabab, and pro-government militias.

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Scores have been killed over the past few days in fresh fighting between Al Shabab Islamist insurgents and pro-government militia in Somalia's war-torn capital, Mogadishu.
The two sides traded mortar and machine gun fire for four days, though reports said calm had returned Monday. Some reports indicated that Al Shabab had tightened its grip over Mogadishu, a setback for the new government led by moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Reports also suggested that foreigners were fighting alongside Al Shabab.
Reuters spoke to an Al Shabab official who claimed his group had made gains in northern Mogadishu.
"We killed an uncountable number of government fighters and moderate Islamists. Their dead bodies lie in the streets," Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, a senior Al-Shabab official, told Reuters.
"Now north Mogadishu is under our control. We swept them from five key positions including Mogadishu football stadium."
The agency also quoted one elder who said that foreigners – "long-bearded Arabs" – were taking part in the fighting.
The US has accused Al Shabab of having links with Al Qaeda, and is concerned that Somalia is increasingly a haven for terrorists, including those involved in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa.
The Somali government repeated those charges, according to Garowe Online.
Somali Security Minister Omar Hashi told reporters that foreigners were fighting alongside Al Shabaab guerrillas in Mogadishu.
"The government will fight against any group that opposes peace.... Foreigners are fighting for Al Shabab," the Security Minister alleged.
He stated that the Council of Ministers held an emergency meeting on Sunday and voted to "declare war" against anti-government factions in Mogadishu.
Security Minister Hashi said the Somali interim government led by Islamist moderate Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as president "has not closed the book on reconciliation," but noted that the government "will fight against anti-peace groups with ties to Al Qaeda."
An Al Shabab official told Garowe Online that "Muslims from across the world are fighting on our side."
Three Somali reporters were also wounded during the fighting, when a shell hit nearby as they were interviewing an Al Shabab member, the media outlet reported.
The BBC reported that at least 14 people were killed in a mortar attack on a mosque. At least 50 people have died in gun battles since Thursday, the agency reported, and residents have fled their homes and the city.
The Cape Times reported civilians had been caught in the crossfire.
At least 15 corpses were seen in the streets of Mogadishu yesterday after fighting started late on Saturday and continued into yesterday afternoon.
Hospital officials and witnesses in other parts of the city said another five people were killed.
Abdinasir Ali, a resident, said he recognized six victims as members of the same family, who had died when a mortar shell hit their house.
Residents were streaming out of the capital, seeking safety.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) said that traffic resumed and businesses reopened Monday. It said the militants had rejected overtures and compromises from the moderate Islamist government.
Hardliners have rejected talks with Ahmed's government, even after it endorsed plans to introduce Islamic law, a key demand of the opposition militants.
"We express concern over the deteriorating situation and we regret the civilian lives lost," said Sheikh Bashir Ahmed Salad, chairman of a religious panel trying to mediate peace between the two sides.
"We had been contacting both sides in the past week to avoid bloodshed, but they ignored our calls and engaged in fighting that led to civilian casualties," he told AFP.
United Press International cited a CNN report that quoted an unnamed Somali journalist describing the chaos in the city. The journalist said fears were running high that Al Shabab would emerge with the upper hand.
"Government soldiers have been forced out of two strategic positions – one is the football stadium and it has fallen into hands of Al-Shabab," the journalist said. "And there is a wide anxiety among the city residents that the radical group may take full control of the city."
Somalia has been wracked with civil war and lawlessness since 1991, when former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was removed from office. Warlords and Islamist groups have since carved up the country.
In 2006, US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded to try to restore order and bolster the flailing government. Those troops engaged in widespread clashes with Islamist groups and finally withdrew in January.

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