Somali Islamists clash as Ethiopians withdraw
Reuters | January 11, 2009
Sheikh Aden Madobe
Sheikh Aden Madobe (REUTERS/Antony Njuguna)
MOGADISHU - Fighting between rival Somali Islamist groups and hardline insurgents on Washington's foreign terrorist list killed dozens of people north of the capital Mogadishu on Sunday, witnesses said.

An Islamist insurgency has been battling government and Ethiopian troops for the past two years, ever since Addis Ababa sent forces to oust the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu.

More than 16,000 civilians have been killed in the insurgency, a million people have been forced from their homes and more than a third of the population depend on aid.

But an estimated 3,000 Ethiopians are now withdrawing and some Islamist factions appear to be turning on al Shabaab fighters, a hardline insurgent group that wants to impose a strict version of Islamic law traditionally shunned by Somalis.

Analysts say while the Ethiopian withdrawal could usher in a new chapter of violence, it may also be a window of opportunity to bring some Islamist groups into the political process and form a broad, inclusive government.

Witnesses said more than 20 people, mostly fighters, were killed in Sunday's battles between Hareka al Shabaab al Mujahideen, or the Mujahideen Youth Movement, and another Islamist group in Gurael, a trading town in central Somalia.

Sheikh Abdullahi Abu Yusuf, spokesman for the Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, said its fighters had killed 30 al Shabaab militants and seized most of their weapons.

Resident Ahmed Ali told Reuters by telephone he had seen two dead, including an al Shabaab leader, and said Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca was in control of the town after repulsing an attack.

A doctor at Istarlin hospital in Gurael said it had received 20 wounded on Sunday and more were on their way.

The fighting followed clashes a day earlier between al Shabaab rebels and moderate Islamists in Balad, 30 km (19 miles) north of Mogadishu, on Saturday.

Al Shabaab, which spearheaded attacks last year to become the face of the insurgency, is also battling Ethiopian and government soldiers elsewhere outside the capital.

While the fighting may be a struggle between Islamist groups jostling for position as the Ethiopians go, local militias angry with al Shabaab's acts are reported to be helping.

Washington accuses the group of having close ties to al Qaeda. Al Shabaab has been imposing strict sharia law on the towns it controls in southern Somalia -- banning drinking or films and beheading suspected government collaborators.

Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca accuses al Shabaab of hunting down and killing its religious leaders and desecrating graves.

Somalia's interim President Sheikh Aden Madobe said on Saturday that al Shabaab was the biggest threat to stability in the Horn of Africa nation and appealed for international help to build up Somali security forces.

(Reporting from Mogadishu; Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)

Al-Shabab major threat to Somalia

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A group of hardline Islamist fighters on Washington's list of foreign terrorists poses the biggest threat to Somalia and the government needs more support to avoid a crisis, its interim president told Reuters.

Islamist insurgents control much of southern and central Somalia and the government holds only the capital Mogadishu and the seat of parliament, Baidoa. Some 3,000 troops from Ethiopia are withdrawing after propping up the government for two years.

Western diplomats hope the insurgency will fracture when the Ethiopian soldiers finally go, and marginalise the hardline al Shabaab fighters who are imposing a strict version of Islamic law traditionally shunned by Somalis.

Speaking on Saturday in Nairobi, Somali President Sheikh Aden Madobe said the government and moderate Muslim scholars would never let al Shabaab seize power, but without help things could get worse for the Horn of Africa nation.

"Al Shabaab is supported by enemies of peace and doing something that is not Islam. Islam is a religion of peace and stability. It is not a terrorism religion, and al Shabaab is Somalia's biggest threat," Madobe said.

The hardline rebel group Hareka al Shabaab al Mujahideen, or the Mujahideen Youth Movement, is fighting Ethiopian and Somali government forces alongside other Islamist groups.

The completion of Ethiopia's pullout could help al Shabaab seize more ground, unless more moderate Islamists turn against them. The United States fears a takeover by al Shabaab and other Islamist militants it sees as linked to al Qaeda.

Madobe, who is Somalia's parliament speaker and interim president since Abdullahi Yusuf quit last month, said Somalia needed more money to build up its security forces.

"Ethiopia has decided to leave and insists on that, and we have not succeeded in forming the troops supposed to take over," he said. "Somalia is tired of chaos."

ELECTION DATE SET

The African Union said in a statement after a summit in Addis Ababa on Saturday that the international community needed to redouble commitments to help get a 10,000-strong Somali force of government and opposition soldiers up and running to support the political process.

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.

"The survival of this government depends on how its leadership works together, how the Somali people assist it in its task and how the international community supports it," Madobe said, before flying back to Baidoa.

He said the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) would respect the 30-day deadline in a transitional federal charter for selecting a new president.

The AU statement issued later on Saturday said the TFG and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia had agreed to hold the election process in Djibouti from Jan. 20-26.

The African Union also said "significant progress" had been made on expanding the parliament to include opposition groups.

Madobe said so far two people had applied for president: Yusuf Azhari, a former envoy to Kenya and adviser to former president Abdullahi Yusuf, and Mohamed Deeq Abdimadar Barqadle, a member of the Somali diaspora who has been living in Sweden.


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