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Rebels advance towards Mogadishu

Article published on the 2008-11-14 Latest update 2008-11-14 18:38 TU

Shabaab militants training on the outskirts of Mogadishu, 4 November 2008(Photo: Reuters)

Shabaab militants training on the outskirts of Mogadishu, 4 November 2008
(Photo: Reuters)

Islamist rebels in Somalia moved to the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu, on Friday, near a checkpoint manned by Ethiopian troops, sparking fears among residents of renewed fighting. The advance by al Shebaab fighters is a potential setback for a fledgling United Nations-brokered peace process that could end 17 years of conflict.

Al Shabaab fighters, who are on United States’ list of foreign terrorist groups, moved to within 15km of Mogadishu. In the past week the movement has been steadily gaining ground in southern Somalia. It took over the port of Merka on Wednesday,  imposing Sharia law, and a Afgoye township on Thursday, 18km south of Mogadishu.

The Shabaab is the resurgent military and youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which briefly ruled most of the country before being ousted in 2006 by Ethiopian troops who still support the embattled transitional government.

The group now controls most of southern and central Somalia, except Mogadishu and the parliamentary town of Baidoa.

Jackie Silliers, director at the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, sees al Shabaab taking over Mogadishu as almost inevitable.

“The transitional federal government (TFG) has only been able to stay in power through the support that they have been receiving in particular from the Ethiopian forces,” he explained to RFI. “And Ethiopians are frankly are getting quite fed up by being seen as having to prop up the TFG.”

Analysis: Jackie Silliers, Institute of Security Studies

14/11/2008 by Chris Thompson

The Shabaab fighters took over Merka unopposed, welcomed by many residents as an alternative to the corruption or local clan militias.

Silliers says there might be a similar reaction if Shabaab takes over Mogadishu.

“On the one side al Shabaab may bring a degree of peace and stability to Mogadishu, which is of course very troubled,” he said. “And the transitional federal government is not really in control of much. I would argue that the main problem is maybe not al Shabaab, but what would  be the international, and particularly the US reaction”

“That would concern me more than what would almost appear the inevitable march to control that portion of Somalia,” he said.

The government has vowed to fight back.

"We will be sending government forces to the region to liberate  it from the violent people who want to derail the peace pact that has been signed by the government and the opposition alliance," national police spokesman Abdulahi Hasan told reporters.

A branch of the ICU is engaged in the UN-sponsored Djibouti peace process. It has committed itself to joint security efforts with the transitional government, though the latest rebel gains may put this into question.

Ethiopia has recently scaled down its military operations in Somalia, but the Shabaab and other hardliners insist they will only negotiate once all troops are gone.

Even though the rebel group is on the US terrorist list, Silliers says it is unlikely that the international community will step in if al Shabaab takes over the capital.

“I don’t think anybody- except maybe the Ethiopians- has a desire for a UN-led engagement,” he said. And the African Union has its own challenges.

”They have been waiting for reinforcements from Nigeria and additional troops from Burundi for some time,” said Silliers.

“With al Shabaab advancing  towards Mogadishu, one doubts if those countries would be prepared to put their soldiers in harm’s way. So I don’t think there’s much stomach either from the international community or from the African union for peace enforcement, peace intervention, peacekeeping type of engagement.”