Hundreds of Somalis including veiled women and children armed with automatic rifles marched through the town of Kismayu, protesting against plans to increase peacekeeper numbers.
Many residents said they were coerced by Islamic insurgents to take to the dusty streets, days after regional powers promised 2,000 extra troops to prop up Somalia’s fragile government.
“A 10-year-old boy loyal to al Shabaab forced me to park my car and follow nearly a thousand people wielding placards with slogans opposing the decision to send troops to Somalia,” one Kismayu resident who did not want to be named said.
Witnesses said similar marches had been held in al Shabaab held territory across central and southern Somalia, Reuters reports
Somalia has been mired in conflict and awash with weapons since the overthrow of a dictator in 1991. Al Shabaab, which professes loyalty to al Qaeda, ordered schools, private hospitals and businesses to close for hours and temporarily banned driving in the port town. Al Shabaab has spearheaded a three-year insurgency against the almost powerless Western-backed government, recruiting children into its ranks, teachers say. “Now even the elderly will not be spared from taking up arms,” another resident said.
Rebel commanders warned they would punish any Somali fleeing the country if neighbouring countries invaded.
“We call upon the Muslim people to join the jihad against the so-called IGAD members … who are our enemies. We will attack them before they attack us,” al Shabaab commander Sheikh Bali told a crowd in Kismayu.
On Monday, IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) members — Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti — pledged to increase peacekeeper numbers to over 8,000 but said they eventually wanted 20,000 troops in Somalia from the African Union and United Nations. [ID:nLDE6641M1]
Up to now the AU AMISOM force, based in the capital Mogadishu, has been able to do little more than shield the presidential palace from militants and guard the city’s port and airport.
But some analysts warn more troops could play into the hands of Islamic extremists bent on bringing down President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s administration. “The concern would be that it allows al Shabaab to present AMISOM as a tool for regional states to try to control Somalia, and play into a greater resistance towards AMISOM within central and southern Somalia,” Ej Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.
Analysts say the United Nations is unlikely to take on a peacekeeping mandate soon and that any U.N force would have to be fronted by Muslim nations. (Reporting by Sahra Abdi and Abdiaziz Hassan; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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