Another city in Somalia falls to Islamist insurgents

Posted in Africa | 13-Nov-08 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Islamist fighters walk on a road in the outskirts of Mogadishu on November 4. Somalia's Islamist Shebab fighters have imposed Sharia law in Merka -- a port town they seized from local clan militia.

NAIROBI: Another major city in Somalia fell to Islamist insurgents without a shot being fired, as guerilla fighters took over the strategic port of Merka on Wednesday, residents and Somali officials said.

The Islamists are now in control of a large - and rapidly growing - swath of south-central Somalia, and the weak transitional government seems too paralyzed by infighting to do much about it. The government has repeatedly asked the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops, but because of the continuing conflicts in eastern Congo and Darfur, that seems unlikely at the moment.

Hundreds of fighters rolled into the port town of Merka at around 8 a.m. on Wednesday in heavily armed pickup trucks, meeting no resistance because government-allied militias had fled the night before, residents said.

Merka is only 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, south of Mogadishu, Somalia's bullet-pocked capital, and Somali officials warned that the Islamists were now planning to lay siege to Mogadishu.

"We know their grand plan," said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large for the transitional federal government. "But we're not going to run away. We're going to fight with whatever we have." But, he added, "We need help - urgently."

The Islamists have been steadily acquiring territory - Merka, Kismayu, Bulo Marer, El Dheer and Qoryooley - and now control many strategic areas across the country.

They seem to be fast approaching Mogadishu, from the north and the south. In some areas, they have begun imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, even stoning to death a young woman who said she was raped. The Islamists convicted her last month of adultery. UN officials said she may have been as young as 13.

The U.S. government has accused the Islamists of sheltering Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for killing Americans.

But many Somalis are so eager for law and order that they are welcoming the gains made by the Islamists. On Wednesday, residents in Merka said they poured into the streets to welcome the gunmen. "I am very happy with them," said Axmed Warfaa, an elder in the town. "I am Muslim and our religion is fair."

The Islamist fighters, who are part of a fearsome group called the Shabab, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, quickly took over Merka's police station and government buildings, residents said. Their leaders addressed a crowd at one of the city's public squares, telling people to stay calm, to put aside clan differences and to embrace the banner of Islam, residents said. Merka's deposed officials fled to a suburb of Mogadishu.

In Mogadishu, the transitional government seems to be embroiled in another round of bitter infighting. Officials allied with the president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, are accusing the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, of secretly helping the Islamists. Some of the president's men have even gone as far as saying that Ethiopian forces, who have been in Somalia for almost two years to help prop up the government, are now working with the insurgents.

At the same time, Ethiopian officials are blaming Somalia's leaders for not making peace with Islamist clerics, who enjoy a large degree of popular support. When the Islamists briefly ruled much of Somalia in 2006, many Somalis considered it the most peaceful era the country had experienced since the central government imploded in 1991.

The Ethiopians, with U.S. help, overthrew the Islamists in the winter of 2006 and an intense guerrilla war has raged ever since, with thousands of civilians killed. The Ethiopians seem to be running out of patience. They have indicated that they would withdraw their troops soon, which many Somalis believe would spell the end of the government.

Complicating matters is the fact that Merka has been home to a major United Nations operation to bring in desperately needed food. Somalia has been teetering on the edge of famine for much of the past year because of drought, conflict-related displacement and high global food prices. Millions of people need emergency rations to survive.

UN officials said Wednesday that Merka's port was crucial to keeping people alive. More than 24 million pounds of food passed through the city in October alone, feeding as many as 850,000 people.

"Merka is so important to us," said Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program. "We hope we can continue operations there."

Smerdon said that local UN employees in Merka were trying to speak to the new Islamist authorities about continuing the life-saving operations. The United Nations works in several other areas in Somalia that the Islamists now control. In the past, UN officials have said they faced fewer problems and interference in some Islamist areas than in those under nominal government control. Yet Islamist insurgents have also been widely blamed for a string of assassinations of aid workers.

Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.