Friday, December 14, 2007

At Least 17 Dead in Somali Unrest


MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A radical Islamic group that was driven from power a year ago by a Western-supported offensive is making a significant comeback in Somalia, and the government can do little to stop it, officials said Thursday, as shelling and gunbattles in the capital killed at least 17 people.

Sheik Qasim Ibrahim Nur, director of security at Somalia's National Security Ministry, said the government has no power to resist the Council of Islamic Courts, which the United States has accused of having ties to al-Qaida.

He said the fighters had regrouped and were poised to launch a massive attack, adding that the government has "no power to resist the Islamists."

Mortar rounds slammed into the biggest market in Mogadishu, killing 12 people and wounding more than 40 others. Five others were killed in a separate gunbattle in the city. The death toll was expected to rise from the latest bloodshed blamed on Islamic insurgents.

"I saw so many dead people lying on the road, I couldn't even look at them, I was so scared for my life," resident Salah Garweyne told The Associated Press.

At least 19 of those wounded by the shelling were in critical condition, said Dr. Hassan Osman Isse at Medina Hospital.

The Council of Islamic Courts has been waging an Iraq-style insurgency that has killed thousands of people this year.

"About 80 percent of Somalia is not safe and is not under control of the government," Nur told the AP. "Islamists are planning to launch a massive attack against the (government) and its allied troops."

Nur appealed for international support, saying Islamic fighters "are everywhere."
Presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamed Mohamud also said that the Muslim fighters were regrouping, and said they have "a lot of weapons and foreign fighters."

The Council of Islamic Courts was driven from power last year when Ethiopia intervened, with the tacit approval of the United States, backing the government with soldiers and fighter jets.
Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the Congress' research arm, said the Islamic leadership was never truly gone and merely went underground.

"The Somali and Ethiopian governments may have underestimated the level of organization and determination on the part of the Islamic courts," Dagne said in a telephone interview from Washington.

He added that many people look back on the group's six months in power and conclude the country then "was relatively peaceful and gave hope to the people of Somalia that after over a decade of violence, they can live in peace."

After the council was ousted, remnants launched an Iraq-style insurgency, causing more bloodshed and throwing this already beleaguered nation into chaos.

In Washington, the State Department called on Somalia to work toward an effective cease-fire to prevent deaths of more innocent civilians.

"We reiterate our earlier call on all Somali actors to isolate extremist elements," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged more African nations to send peacekeepers to Somalia, perhaps the most strategically located nation in the Horn of Africa. At a crossroads between the Middle East and Africa, Somalia dominates vital sea lanes, although rampant piracy has made the waters treacherous.

About 1,800 Ugandan peacekeepers are in Somalia, officially as the vanguard of a larger African Union peacekeeping force, although no other countries have sent reinforcements. Ethiopia, which sent soldiers to Somalia last year to back the government in its fight against the Islamic militants, is not part of the peacekeeping force.

The United States can do little by itself in Somalia. An intervention in the early 1990s left 18 U.S. servicemen dead and the legacy of the "Black Hawk Down" battle still weighs heavily on both countries. But Western powers have long been concerned that the lawless country could become a breeding ground for terror.

President Abdullahi Yusuf is in London for what his aides described as a regular medical checkup. On Thursday, the 73-year-old president was said to be well, but uncertainty over his condition persists, adding to the tension in his homeland.

Officials from Ethiopia, which has troops in Somalia backing the government, denied there is any Islamic resurgence. "The facts on the ground tell you that they are in bad shape and having serious difficulties," said Bereket Simon, special adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Government officials rarely acknowledge what many observers have concluded about their tenuous position. But there are increasing signs that the Islamic extremist group that controlled much of southern Somalia last year is again gaining power in this Horn of Africa nation.
Members of the group and the feared Shabab — its military wing — have been spotted with increasing frequency throughout central Somalia.

In Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city located about 310 miles south of the capital, a member of the Shabab said his group was sending soldiers to the capital daily to fight the Ethiopians. The fighter asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.

Over the weekend, about 50 heavily armed militiamen briefly overran Bula Burte town in central Somalia, about 130 miles north of the capital, said the regional Gov. Yusuf Dabaged.
"The so-called insurgents are increasing in the region," Dabaged said. "From now on we will fight them ruthlessly."

The country faces what the United Nations says is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Africa, and a local aid group says 6,000 civilians have been killed in fighting this year. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes to squalid refugee camps.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991, then turned on one another. The current government was formed in 2004 with the support of the U.N., but has struggled to assert any real control.

Kennedy contributed from Nairobi, Kenya. Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, and Nasteex Dahir Farah in Kismayo, Somalia, contributed to this report.

On the Net:

State Department on al-Qaida threat in Somalia:

Source: AP

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