Somali government encircled by hardline Islamists
Nairobi, Kenya – Somali Islamist leader and onetime president Sheikh Dahir Aweys has launched what appears to be a final assault on the fragile Somali transitional government.
Five days of fighting, including heavy shelling, have left dozens dead, almost certainly ending hopes for negotiations to potentially win over Sheikh Aweys’s support for, and inclusion in, the moderate Islamist government of president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Both men had served in the short-lived Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) government of 2006, before it was removed by an Ethiopian military intervention.
The assault casts serious doubt over the survival of the Sharif government, just days after international donors pledged $213 million to support it. At present, forces loyal to Sharif control roughly 25 city blocks in Mogadishu, including the presidential palace. About 4,000 African Union peacekeeping troops also protect the Sharif government, the seaport, and the Mogadishu airport.
“There is no doubt Aweys wants a military solution. He wants to dislodge Sharif,” says Rashid Abdi, an expert on Somalia for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “They’re shelling the presidential palace and parts of the airport. This is looking like the final assault.”
Witnesses say the fighting in Mogadishu is reminiscent of fighting in the early 1990s, in the scrum for power among warlords that followed the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991. As many as 60 people have been killed and 250 injured. Five thousand fighters loyal to the hardline Islamist militia Al Shabab have been sent to Mogadishu from as far away as the southern port city of Kismayo. Fighters of another hardline Islamist group Hizbul Islam have joined the assault on Sharif’s government as well.
Government forces in retreat
After five days of assault by better-armed Al Shabab fighters, pro-government fighters have apparently begun to retreat into areas under control of the African Union peacekeepers.
From the Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, Sheikh Sharif said on Monday that his government is still working toward a peaceful solution of the crisis, treating Aweys’s military assault as nothing more than a hard bargaining position.
“We tell the Somali people that the government is making efforts to stop the fighting and work for the interest of the people, but unfortunately people who have made a career of war and do not want a government are wreaking havoc in the country,” Sharif told reporters on Monday. “The government is committed to holding free elections and to avoid taking power by the gun. The reason they [opposition] are fighting us is to overthrow our government and to prevent the creation of an effective government.”
Hours after the press conference, the presidential palace itself was shelled.