x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Somalia's government battles for control

Death toll passes 80 after hotel siege as president promises to resist 'heartless, deviant' Shabab insurgents.

A boy runs across Howlwadag Street in Mogadishu during the third day of fighting between Somali government forces and Islamist rebels in Mogadishu.
A boy runs across Howlwadag Street in Mogadishu during the third day of fighting between Somali government forces and Islamist rebels in Mogadishu.

NAIROBI // One day after a bloody siege by al Shabab militants, Somalia's beleaguered government was clinging for control of a few small pockets of the shell-shocked capital, Mogadishu. Fighting continued as insurgents tried to force government troops back towards the presidential palace. Eight people were killed yesterday, pushing the week's death toll past 80, officials said.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, president of the transitional federal government, visited the Muna Hotel where al Shabab fighters killed at least 30 people on Tuesday, including six members of parliament. He said his administration would stand up to "the heartless, deviant criminals". "Al Shabab's assault on a hotel filled with fasting, innocent civilians is a proof of not only their evil nature but also their desperation," the president said. "This terror attack will only redouble the Somali people's resistance against this transient menace."

Although Mr Ahmed voiced the resolve of his government to quell the threat, analysts said that if it were not for the 6,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the government forces would be overrun in a matter of days and al Shabab rebels, who have links to al Qa'eda, would take charge. Others say the presence of foreign troops strengthens the rebels, giving them a platform to tout their nationalist credentials.

Ugandan and Burundian troops make up the bulk of the peacekeeping force, which patrols a safe zone of 15 city blocks that the government controls in Mogadishu. The mission protects such key installations as the airport, seaport and presidential villa. The AU pledged as many as 4,000 additional troops to the mission after al Shabab killed 70 people in a bomb attack in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, last month. That attack was al Shabab's first outside of Somalia.

Al Shabab has fiercely rejected any foreign troops in Somalia and on Monday pledged to fight a "massive, final war" against the AU troops. The militant group has waged a three-year insurgency against the western-backed government it hopes to overthrow and replace with a Taliban-style system based on a strict interpretation of Sharia. It includes hundreds of radical foreign fighters. The transitional government's attempts to restore central rule have been paralysed by infighting and the Islamist insurgency. Fighting has killed more than 21,000 people since the start of 2007 and displaced at least 1.5 million civilians.

The international community has continued to back the government of Sheikh Sharif, even though his administration has recently appeared on the verge of collapse. After Tuesday's attack, the United Nations reaffirmed its support for it. "Those who are responsible for these murders are only interested in causing destruction and misery to the Somali people," said Augustine Mahiga, the UN special representative for Somalia.

"They will not, however, succeed in their violent campaign. The Somali people are yearning for peace, which they deserve, and they will be heard. The peace process will continue in Somalia despite the attempts by a violent minority to disrupt it." The White House also condemned the attack. The United States, which sees Somalia as a third front in its war on terrorism, provides the transitional government with weapons, training and financial support.

"Al Shabab's vision for Africa stands in sharp contrast to the vision of the overwhelming majority of Africans," John Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser to Barack Obama, told reporters at a White House press briefing. The attack "is a particularly outrageous act during the Islamic month of Ramadan". The recent upsurge in violence clearly shows the military strength of al Shabab, which means "youth" in Arabic. The extremist group controls most of southern Somalia, including large areas of the capital. In its territory, music and dancing are banned, women cannot leave the house without an escort and men must grow beards. In al Shabab's justice system, criminals have their hands chopped off or they are executed publicly.

Islamist militias gained control of Mogadishu in 2006 and were hailed by some for restoring order and criticised by others for their harsh rule. They fled the capital at the end of 2006 as a joint Ethiopian and Somali government force captured the city. Ethiopian troops were replaced by the African Union peacekeeping mission in 2007. Al Shabab gains support partly through fear and intimidation, but also by providing stability and jobs to young Somalis who have known nothing but anarchy and war for the last 20 years. Al Shabab also rallies its fighters around the presence of AU peacekeepers, which it sees as a foreign occupying force.

The AU, however, said that al Shabab is standing in the way of peace in Somalia. "It's sad to learn that armed opposition groups do not see the wisdom of giving peace a chance in their country," said Boubacar Diarra, the AU representative for Somalia. "The attack on innocent civilians clearly demonstrates the cowardly and barbaric mindset of those opposed to the peace process and cannot be condoned."

Although a final solution for Somalia's problems seems a long way off, analysts say that pumping more foreign troops into the battle is not a viable strategy. "Escalating the foreign military involvement is not a solution," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group. "That only plays into the hands of al Shabab." Mr Abdi said more support is needed to prop up the political institutions within the transitional government. Once the government is functioning, it should reach out to moderate clan leaders and focus on an organic military approach to dealing with al Shabab.

"The problem is a lack of government capacity," Mr Abdi said. "You can only begin to have a military solution once you have a political strategy." * The National with additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters