Pro-government militiamen in southern Somalia have seized a second town from rebels as President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s fragile administration seeks to crush the insurgents, witnesses said today.
Western security agencies say Somalia, which has been torn by civil war for the past 18 years, has become a haven for militants plotting attacks in the Horn of Africa and beyond, Reuters reports.
The international community is trying to bolster Ahmed’s UN-backed government, which until this week only controlled small pockets of the coastal capital Mogadishu.
Residents in Gedo region, which borders Kenya and Ethiopia, said heavily armed militiamen including the Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca group swept into Luuq town after seizing Bulahawa earlier this week.
Local man Ahmed Mohamed said Luuq had been under the control of Hizbul Islam rebels, who fled as their foes approached.
“They have regrouped outside the town and fighting might start,” he said, adding that the pro-government militia was now occupying the strategic town’s police station.
Luuq businessman Yusuf Hure said both sides appeared to be receiving reinforcements, and that shops and markets remained closed for fear of clashes. Many residents had fled the town.
Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca forces chased another insurgent group, al Shabaab, out of Gedo’s Bulahawa town without firing a shot. The US accuses al Shabaab of being al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia.
The pro-government militia says it wants to drive the rebels from the south central town of Baidoa and strategic southern port of Kismayu. A spokesperson for the fighters that seized Luuq said Ethiopian soldiers had accompanied them.
“We are going to recapture Kismayu and Bay (region). There are Ethiopian troops with us,” said Isaq Huru Ali.
Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement from Mogadishu. The insurgency has raged ever since, despite the withdrawal of the Ethiopians in January.
Ethiopian officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The government in Addis Ababa routinely denies its military is fighting in the anarchic country, but says that it is giving technical assistance to Ahmed’s government.
Violence in Somalia has killed more than 18 000 civilians since the start of 2007 and uprooted another 1 million.
Pic: Somalia militants