Tuesday, May 19, 2009



May 18 2009
JOWHAR, Somalia

Islamist insurgents closed in on Somalia’s coastal capital after seizing another strategic town north of Mogadishu today.

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 on Sunday 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.

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

Masked Islamists

“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 President Ahmed’s administration could not immediately be reached for comment.

President Ahmed was chairman of the Islamic Courts Union that ran Mogadishu in 2006 before Ethiopian troops, wary of having an Islamist state next door, invaded and ousted them from power.

Since the Ethiopians intervened, fighting has 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.

The Ethiopian troops pulled out of Somalia at the start of this year, but hardline Islamists carried on attacking the new government and African Union peacekeepers in the capital.

“We are following the situation closely but we feel the problem is contained within Somalia. At this point there is no present and immediate danger to Ethiopia that would prompt our intervention,” Mr Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government’s head of information told reporters.

“We still have information that Al- Shabaab are not able to penetrate central Somalia and are not accepted by the clans that live around central Somalia,” he said.

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