Somali insurgents take another town


Islamist insurgents are closing in on Somalia‘s coastal capital after seizing another strategic town north of Mogadishu this morning.

Reuters says President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s forces control only parts of the city and central region after two weeks of fighting. Human rights workers in the Horn of Africa nation say the clashes have killed at least 172 civilians and wounded 528.

Hardline al Shabaab rebels seized Jowhar yesterday and witnesses said hundreds of gunmen from another insurgent group — Hizbul Islam — marched into nearby Mahaday today and took control without firing a shot.

“We have captured the town peacefully,” Hassan Mahdi, Hizbul Islam’s spokesman, said by telephone.

Ahmed’s UN-backed administration is the 15th attempt to set up central rule in Somalia, which has been in anarchy for 18 years. Neighbouring states and Western security forces fear the country could become a haven for al Qaeda-linked extremists.

Jowhar, 90 km from Mogadishu, is Ahmed’s hometown and links the capital to Somalia‘s volatile central region. Mahaday is 23 km (14 miles) north of Jowhar.

“Masked Islamists are on the streets,” resident Fatima Hussein told Reuters. “They are not speaking to anyone … there was no fighting, the pro-government forces left last night.”

Officials in Ahmed’s administration could not immediately be reached for comment.

The last two years of fighting have killed at least 17 700 civilians and driven more than 1 million from their homes. More than 3 million people survive on emergency food aid.

In the central town of Mahas, witnesses said Shabaab fighters beheaded a local elder and burnt his body yesterday.

“We have carried his bones and some of his burnt flesh and had a burial this morning,” resident Ahmed Farah told Reuters.

“They always do this when they want to terrorise residents.”

Somali pirates have taken advantage of the chaos to launch ever bolder attacks on shipping. Nearly 30 hijackings this year have put it on course to be the worst ever.

The bloodshed has also forced many Somalis to flee west across the porous, desert border into Kenya.

A charity said on Monday more than 270,000 refugees in Kenya were facing such alarming shortages of food, water and adequate shelter in overcrowded camps that many of them were considering returning to the Somali war zone.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said some 5000 people were arriving every month at three camps in Kenya‘s Dadaab area.

“The situation is simply scandalous,” said Joke Van Peteghem, MSF head of mission in Kenya.

“These refugees have risked everything to escape the fighting in Somalia. Now some are telling us they would rather take their chances in Mogadishu than die slowly here.”