Last week, fighters from the hardline Islamic group, Al Shabab, attacked Mogadishu from their bases in southern Somalia. The resulting fighting, pitting Al Shabab versus the newly expanded, U.S.- and U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government, has deepened the divide between two formerly allied groups. The schism represents the biggest obstacle to peace in a country that has suffered nearly continuous warfare since 1991.
“Both sides have used the different kinds of armaments, including anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and others, such heavy and light machine guns — which could be heard almost in the entire of the capital city,” Mohamed Omar Hussein, a reporter for Somali Weyn, wrote.
“I cannot yet give you the consequence of the battle; it is still in progress,” an Al-Shabab spokesman told Hussein on the front line. Dozens have died in a week of combat, including some civilians killed by errant mortars fired by a small African-Union peacekeeping contingent, according to press reports. Perhaps in response to the escalating violence, the A.U. — which backs the Transitional Federal Government — has moved armored vehicles into a new base at the site of a former prison.
In December, the TFG fled Somalia while under constant attack by Islamists. Reconvening in neighboring Djibouti, the parliament, composed mostly of Western-friendly clan leaders, voted to admit an alliance of moderate Islamists led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former top official in the Islamic Courts Union regime that had been destroyed by a combined U.S.-Ethiopian attack on Somalia in 2006. The U.S. State Department had accused the ICU of harboring terrorists in its armed wing, none other than Al Shabab. In the wake of the invasion, Al Shabab split from the ICU and formed the core of a bloody insurgency.
Immediately following the parliamentary expansion in Djibouti, the body elected Ahmed as TFG president. His election pitted him against his former allies in Al Shabab in the battle for control of Somalia. The U.S., U.N. and A.U. promptly threw their support behind their former enemy Ahmed and his new government. “The government is based on a system … established by Western countries and its is working for the interest of the Western countries,” Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said. “Thus, we cannot call it a Muslim government, and I urge the Somali population to support the current waves of fighting in the capital.”
The U.N. labeled the attack on Mogadishu a “coup attempt.” U.N. Somalia envoy Ahmedou Ould Abdallah described the TFG as a “legitimate regime.” U.S. State Department officials says Somalia’s best hope for peace is an ongoing series of talks between Somali factions — talks hosted in Djibouti and supported by many of the world’s governments. Al-Shabab leaders have rejected the Djibouti framework, and have accused Western powers of using the talks to manipulate Somalia for their own gain. The current fighting only crystalizes Al Shabab’s refusal to sit down to talks.
Including thousands of refugees fleeing the recent fighting, more than 1 million Somalis are displaced, according to the U.N. The world body estimates more than 3 million of Somalia’s 8 million people face malnutrition, amid a drought that is “worse than people have seen for at least a decade,” said Mark Bowden, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.
Many Somalis depend on remittances from relatives living abroad, but those remittances have diminished with the global recession.
(Photo: Somali Weyn)