Thursday, February 12, 2009

Somali militias clash

Islamist militias clash in Somalia as Ethiopian troops withdraw

As 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers depart, militia groups are battling to take more control from the weak transitional government.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security update
January 12, 2009

Fierce fighting between rival Islamist militias left at least 25 dead in central Somalia on Sunday, as a struggle for the heart of this war-torn nation rages in the power vacuum left by departing Ethiopian troops.

The BBC reports that the hard line Al Shabab – regarded by the United States as a terrorist group – faced off against a "local militia," killing 30 and injuring at least 30 more. The fighting took place in Guriel, 310 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu.

Correspondents say that a power vacuum may be opening up as the 3,000-strong Ethiopian force pulls out of Somalia. Ethiopian troops arrived in Somalia in 2006 to help the interim government oust Islamists from the capital.

The Ethiopian intervention was deeply unpopular with many Somalis....
Al Shabab, which opposes a peace deal with Somalia's transitional government, is trying to take control of areas vacated by the Ethiopians - Guriel was one such town.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) put the number of wounded at more than 50. It identified Al Shabab's rivals as members of the more moderate group, the Ahlu Sunna Wal-jamaah. It said the two rival militias had already battled several times in December in a struggle for control of Guriel.

"It was the heaviest clash ever in the region between the two sides," Abdulahi Hirsi Moge, a local elder, told AFP. "We have counted at least 25 people, most of them combatants, killed in the fighting and there is still a possibility of some undisclosed dead bodies outside of the town," he added.

Garowe Online, the website of a radio station based in northern Somalia, reported that the fighting broke out around 5:30 a.m. Sunday when Al Shabab forces attacked a checkpoint manned by the moderate group. It claimed the moderates are warlords who are funded and armed by Ethiopia.

Voice of America reports that some Somalis were celebrating after Al Shabab's apparent defeat in Sunday's skirmish. It quoted a senior officer of the moderate militia, Sheik Abdulkarim Risak, as saying his group is determined to drive Al Shabab out of the country.

"Thanks to Allah, we have taught them [Al Shabab] a lesson today because they left at least 50 persons dead... and now we are moving to the capital, Mogadishu. We will continue to chase them wherever they are, and even if they are in a corner of our country, I think we would not stop our fighting," he said.

According to Mr. Risak, many of Al Shabab's men were foreign fighters, possibly from Southeast Asia.

In an interview published Saturday, Reuters quoted Somali interim president Sheikh Aden Madobe as saying Al-Shabab is the "biggest threat" to Somalia. He also said Somali troops were not ready to take over security duties from the departing Ethiopians.

Mr. Madobe said Somalia would select a new president at the end of the month in a conference in Djibouti. Meanwhile, Reuters reported, the African Union is urging member countries to fulfill promises of sending more troops to help bring stability to Somalia.

The AU has been desperately trying to beef up its existing force of some 3,500 troops from Uganda and Burundi. But despite pledges of extra battalions from those two nations and Nigeria, they have yet to deploy.

Analysts say unless the African Union force is strengthened soon there is a risk those peacekeepers will pull out as well, leaving even more of a security vacuum.

A commentary in last week's Economist called Somalia "Africa's most utterly failed state" and warned that the security situation could go from bad to worse with the departure of the 3,000 Ethiopian troops.

Ethiopia's withdrawal may simply leave a power vacuum, to be filled in short order by Islamist militias that are now even more dangerous than those crushed by the original invasion at the end of 2006.

[Former Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf's] gunmen may return north to their more or less autonomous homeland in Puntland, perhaps to profit from piracy. Various armed groups would then fight for control of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, and of central Somalia. These include a patchwork of militias loyal to rival clan elders and warlords, along with moderate Islamists, radical Islamists, and private security groups hired by businessmen.

Last week, two World Food Program relief workers were shot dead by gunmen, according to the Associated Press.

In its latest report on Somalia, the International Crisis Group urged the international community to accept that Islamist insurgents must be given a place at the negotiating table. It said the high-profile fight against pirates in shores off Somalia had distracted the world from addressing the roots of Somalia's instability.

Over the last two years the situation has deteriorated into one of the world's worst humanitarian and security crises. The international community is preoccupied with a symptom – the piracy phenomenon – instead of concentrating on the core of the crisis, the need for a political settlement.

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