An influential Somali insurgent leader said on Friday Eritrea supported the rebel fight against the government in a holy war that was as much an obligation for Muslims as prayer.
Speaking in his office in northern Mogadishu, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said a few Arab fighters had joined the rebellion, which is battling to overthrow Somalia’s new government and President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
“Eritrea supports us and Ethiopia is our enemy — we once helped both countries but Ethiopia did not reward us,” Aweys, dressed in a dark suit, told Reuters in an interview.
Eritrea has been blamed for supplying the hardline Islamist insurgents with weapons — a charge it has repeatedly denied — and the United Nations says hundreds of foreign fighters have joined rebel ranks in recent months.
“There may be two or three Arabs who were moved by Islam to fight alongside us. But there is no large number of foreign Mujahideen in Mogadishu. We and the Arabs are all Muslims — so we are Arabs,” he said.
“We are not fighting for positions, but for Islam. It is agreed upon within Islam that Christians and those they support are the same — so war is incumbent upon us, like prayer.”
The insurgents want to rid the Horn of Africa nation of African Union peackeepers, impose a strict version of sharia law and overthrow an administration they see as Western stooges.
“Somalia has no government we recognise,” said Aweys. “We should not be deceived by Westerners like Sharif.”
Neighbouring states and Western security forces fear Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for 18 years, could become a haven for militants linked to al Qaeda.
Mindful of disastrous US-UN intervention in the early 1990s, which collapsed after the “Black Hawk Down” killing of 18 American soldiers, Western powers are unlikely to intervene.
Aweys and Ahmed together ran Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia in late 2006 as leaders of the Islamic Courts Union before Ethiopian troops invaded and drove them from power.
The two Islamists — Aweys was always considered the more hardline — went into exile in Eritrea and formed the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) which aimed to oust the Western-backed government and its Ethiopian backers.
But Ahmed joined a UN-hosted peace process in neighbouring Djibouti last year and was elected president by an expanded parliament including ARS members in January.
Parliament has since voted to introduce sharia law throughout the country.
Aweys, who is on UN and US terrorism lists for alleged links to al Qaeda, returned to Somalia from Eritrea in April.
Envoys from Ahmed and clan elders have tried to persuade him to reconcile with the president, but failed.
“Palestine, Afghanistan and Eritrea resisted war and difficulties for more than three decades,” he said.
“We shall defeat the government soon, God willing. Let the injured ones and those who lost their brothers be patient — we are left with little time — and then God will grant us victory,” Aweys said with a chuckle.