Saturday, March 25, 2006


Global battle plays out in Somalia.

Gunmen have controlled Mogadishu for 15 years. Since the 11 September attacks on the United States more than four years ago, Somalis have feared that their lawless country could become the setting for a battle between US-backed anti-terror forces and al-Qaeda sympathisers. Now it seems as though their worst fears may be coming true. The capital, Mogadishu, has been rocked by the worst violence in almost a decade, leaving at least 70 people dead. Hundreds of people have fled their homes as the rival militia clashed with mortars and anti-aircraft guns. The few private hospitals still operating are unable to cope with the deluge of people injured in the fighting.

The fighting is between the Islamic Courts' militia, which wants to set up Sharia law to end the years of anarchy, and a coalition of the warlords who have devastated the country, fighting for control in the 15 years since there was last an effective national government. The Islamists say the warlords, who recently formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, are being funded by "non-Muslim foreigners", taken to mean the US anti-terror task force based in neighbouring Djibouti.

Facts and figures about life in Somalia
The US authorities have not commented on these latest allegations. They have previously said they had "no information" on widely accepted reports that warlords had kidnapped terror suspects in Mogadishu and handed them over to US agents to be flown abroad for questioning. The warlords - Mohammed Deere, Mohammed Qanyare and Bashir Rageh - and their business allies control large parts of Mogadishu and crucially the airstrips around the capital. It is always difficult to know exactly what is going on in a country with no central authority. Some analysts say the fighting may also be over business rivalries between militia leaders.

The BBC's Hassan Barise in Somalia says the latest fighting is the worst seen in Mogadishu for almost a decade - since the aftermath of the last US intervention in the country and the death of warlord Mohammed Aideed. To make matters worse, the fighting has come at a time when there seemed finally to be some progress in Somalia's snail-like peace process. Most people are just desperate to be able to go about their daily lives without the fear of being killed by a stray mortar.
More than a year after a new parliament and president were sworn in in neighbouring Kenya, the MPs finally started their first meeting on Somali soil last month - just a week after the fighting between the Islamic Courts and the warlords first started. A diplomat following the Somali peace process told the BBC News website that the fighting was a "serious blow", which has overshadowed the parliamentary session in the town of Baidoa. "Three of those involved should be in Baidoa but instead they are fighting in Mogadishu," he said. President Abdullahi Yusuf has long argued that Mogadishu is too dangerous to host the government. He has set himself up in Jowhar, 90km north of the capital, to the concern of some MPs, led by Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan.

They say the president does not have the authority to move Somalia's capital. This latest fighting only makes it more difficult to set up a government in Mogadishu and puts backwards the date when Somali can again be a "normal" country. Some Somalis back the Islamic Courts for doing something to establish law and order in a country where the law of the gun has long held sway. But the warlords, and others, say the Islamists are also behind a series of targeted assassinations of prominent figures, including a peace activist and senior military officials.

A US anti-terror base is as close as it could be to Somalia.Many of the Somalis killed are those who had argued in favour of a foreign peacekeeping force in Somalia - an idea strongly rejected by the Islamists. The warlords further accuse the Islamic Courts of sheltering a Sudanese man, known as Zuweydan, wanted by the US as a terror suspect. Western diplomats have long said that Somalia was home to training camps for Islamic radicals. In a country without a government, a group with enough money can do just about anything it wants. Weapons are easily available in Mogadishu's arms bazaar.

Last year the International Crisis Group, a political think-tank, reported that: "In the rubble-strewn streets of the ruined capital of this state without a government... al-Qaeda operatives, jihadi extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed counter-terrorism networks are engaged in a shadowy and complex contest waged by intimidation, abduction and assassination."
One of the key figures in the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is wanted by the US, denies the existence of training camps in Somalia. Sheikh Aweys denies terror groups operate in Somalia.But he says he has sympathy for the "Muhajadeen who are fighting back" against attacks by the US and their allies around the world. On the streets of Mogadishu, many distrust the Islamic Courts but also have little time for the warlords who have ruined their country, or for the US, which they see as oppressing Muslims. The thousands living as refugees, in tents or wooden shelters erected on waste ground or in derelict buildings, are desperate for more permanent shelter, and for schools and clinics. Before then, however, most people are just desperate to be able to go about their daily lives without the fear of being killed by a stray mortar.


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