Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Heavy gunfire erupts in Mogadishu as AU peacekeepers land

Reuters report by Sahal Abdulle Mar 6 2007 6:07 PM GMT:
Insurgents unleashed two attacks against the Somali government and its foreign allies in Mogadishu on Tuesday, just hours after Ugandan peacekeepers assigned to tame the anarchic city landed.

The concerted assaults, some of the heaviest in weeks, appeared timed to coincide with the arrival of some 350 Ugandans in the vanguard of an African Union mission to help restore law to a country mired in chaos since central rule crumbled in 1991.

More than a dozen mortar strikes hit the airport, where the Ugandans were camped after landing earlier. A Ugandan army spokesman said none of the soldiers was wounded.

"The military side of the airport has been hit. We cannot cross from this side to the other side," said a witness.

The Ugandans were the first batch of peacekeepers to arrive in Mogadishu since a U.S. and U.N. operation ended in failure in 1995, after relentless street battles with local militiamen.

The proposed 8,000-strong AU force is designed to help Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf's government extend its shaky authority over the Horn of Africa country.

Yusuf, backed by Ethiopian armour and air power in a lightning war over Christmas and New Year, routed rival Islamists who held most of southern Somalia for six months.

They fled into hiding vowing to wage holy war against foreign troops and guerrilla attacks have gradually built up.

Shortly after the airport attack, scores of masked fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns at government and Ethiopian troops at a base in Mogadishu's industrial area.

At least two civilians were killed in the attack, said a local reporter trapped by the gunfire at a nearby hospital.


Most of the Ugandans were flown in by the Algerian air force in C-130 cargo planes.

Last week, 35 Ugandan officers landed in Baidoa, the interim government's temporary capital in south-central Somalia. More are expected to arrive in the coming days to bring the Ugandan contingent to about 1,600.

The Ugandans are assigned to patrol Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous and gun-infested cities.

"It's a suicide mission. No one in their right mind would send 1,600 troops to Somalia now. They're sending in boys with no experience of this kind of mission," said a Western diplomat in the Ugandan capital Kampala, who declined to be named.

The insurgents are suspected of being a mix of defeated Islamists and clan militiamen resisting central rule that would end their private fiefdoms.

Two unmarked Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft flew in white military vehicles for the Ugandans with AU markings, including armoured personnel carriers.

The AU force is needed to replace Ethiopian troops, which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he is eager to pull out after defeating the Islamists.

But as with its previous peacekeeping operation, in Sudan's Darfur region, the AU faces a shortage of money and equipment.

"I hope our partners will help us overcome the funding and logistical problems facing the AU," said Said Djinnit, the group's commissioner for peace and security.

Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi and Burundi are also expected to send troops to join the AU force, but pledges so far make up only about half of the required number of soldiers.

None of the previous 13 attempts at a central government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991 have succeeded in taming the coastal city.

"Our mission is not to fight, but if the lives of troops are endangered, they have the right to fight back," Djinnit said.

Somalia's Islamist milias may be plotting comeback

March 5, 2007 copy of report (via POTP - with thanks)
March 5, 2007
Somalia's Islamist militias may be plotting comeback
By McClatchy's Shashank Bengali...
(See also his report from last Thursday.)

Barely two months after they were toppled by a U.S.-backed military operation, militant Islamist leaders and hundreds of fighters have returned to the country's capital and are quietly preparing to make a comeback, according to militia members and Somali community leaders.

An Ethiopian invasion in late December drove the Council of Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu, but according to U.S. diplomats, Ethiopian forces captured few fighters and killed none of the top Islamist leaders. Since then, many of the senior leaders, who the Bush administration says have ties to al-Qaida, have returned to the city, militia members said.

Several hundred fighters are now living in Mogadishu, where they dress in plain clothes and work day jobs as cafeteria workers and traders, but meet regularly with superior officers and tribal elders, according to fighters from three neighborhoods in south Mogadishu. The fighters and their tribal supporters said [that] they maintain an underground arsenal of automatic rifles, grenades and other weapons.

In Washington, a U.S. official said [that] McClatchy's reporting from Mogadishu is "basically on the mark," and that although it's "hard to affix a number" to the returning fighters, the Islamists' return is "cause for concern."

"There is reason to believe that some have returned to Mogadishu and they may be trying to reconstitute themselves," said the official, who couldn't be identified because the reporting from Somalia is classified.

Civic leaders confirmed the accounts about the Islamist fighters. "They are reorganizing themselves, and no one can stop that," said Abdullahi Shirwa, a prominent secular peace activist. "They have a lot of support."

The re-emergence of the Islamists would be another setback to the Bush administration's efforts to block the creation of an Islamist regime in the Horn of Africa. Although the majority of Somalis believe that the Islamic Courts' political agenda is law and order - not terrorism - U.S. officials have charged that the movement's leaders sheltered three al-Qaida members who've carried out terrorist attacks on American and Israeli targets in East Africa in the past decade.

Somalia's transitional government blames the Islamists for a growing insurgency that's led to the deaths of dozens of civilians and forced some 10,000 residents to flee Mogadishu. Islamist fighters have denied launching the attacks, but strongly oppose the government, which rode into Mogadishu on the heels of the Ethiopians.

The Bush administration views the Ethiopian campaign as a success, because it swiftly removed the Islamist political leadership from power. But because militia commanders ordered their men to retreat rather than fight the Ethiopians, outside analysts believe [that] they suffered few losses.

U.S. forces launched two airstrikes on southern Somalia in January, the first of which killed eight militiamen. But neither claimed the lives of any of the al-Qaida targets or the top Courts leaders, U.S. officials have said.

Meanwhile, the factors that propelled the Islamist movement to power last summer - Mogadishu's all-too-familiar routine of mortar attacks, scattered gun battles and general insecurity - have returned. By imposing strict religious law during their six-month reign, the Courts provided a respite from the anarchy and clan-based violence that have shadowed the city since 1991.

"We made the city peaceful, but today you can see how everything is different," said Ahmed Ali, a 36-year-old fighter who joined the militias after his parents were killed in a shootout at a roadblock in 1999.

In interviews last week, Ali and two other fighters - members of the radical wing known as Hisb'ul Shabaab, or "Party of Youth" - said [that] they were under orders not to carry out attacks. But they said that influential elders from Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan, angry at government policies, have begun to reconstitute small groups of militiamen who now meet secretly across the city.

While the Islamists' political wing is in disarray, outside analysts say [that] Shabaab's core leadership remains intact, and that Mogadishu's chaos allows clandestine cells to function almost undisturbed.

"The loss of its safe haven will not necessarily spell Shabaab's end," the International Crisis Group research agency said in a recent report.

"The network is still there. We are all in contact often," Ahmed Abdullah Hassan, 29, the outspoken leader of a small group of fighters, told a visiting American reporter. "I am telling you, we could be very near to fighting government troops."

Some doubt that the Islamists are ready to take up arms. For one thing, the movement's supreme leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who's on U.S. and international terrorist watch lists, and top Shabaab leader, Adan Hashi Ayro, an Afghanistan-trained jihadist, are believed to be in hiding outside Mogadishu. Analysts believe that Ayro was injured or possibly killed in one of the U.S. airstrikes.

Others say [that] it's too soon, with thousands of Ethiopian troops still in the country and an African Union peacekeeping force due to arrive soon.

But neither Somalia's patchwork security forces nor the African peacekeepers have the manpower or [the] will to go after the militants or their weapons.

U.S. officials want interim President Abdullahi Yusuf to make peace with moderate Islamists, and perhaps bring some of them into his administration. People in Somalia say that the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Kenya helped ensure safe passage for one leading moderate, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, to Nairobi last month, when he met privately with Ambassador Michael Ranneberger before fleeing into exile in Yemen.

So far, Yusuf refuses to negotiate with the Islamists. Some Somalis believe [that] that could hasten the Islamists' resurgence and [could] possibly draw in more fighters from Somalia and abroad.

"If the situation remains the way it is, that would bring an opportunity for the Islamic Courts to become an effective, armed opposition," said Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, a managing partner of the HornAfrik media corporation. "In the absence of more credible institutions, they can prevail."

If the Bush administration can't persuade Yusuf to negotiate, it would mark the second political setback in a year for U.S. policy in Somalia, which has been a trouble spot since the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen in a 1993 Mogadishu street battle that was depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

Last year, the CIA covertly funded a coalition of Mogadishu warlords against the Islamists, which only increased popular opposition to the warlords and failed after a few months.

Mohammed Afrah Qanyare, a leader of that coalition and formerly the city's most powerful warlord, told McClatchy Newspapers that while workaday Somalis had grown tired of the Islamists' legal strictures, the militias probably have the power to retake the country.

"The only way they can come back," Qanyare said, "is by force."

Mortars fired after AU peacekeepers land

Mar 5 2007 IOL report - Mortars fired after peacekeepers land - by Sahal Abdulle - excerpt:
Mogadishu - More than a dozen mortar bombs were fired at Mogadishu's airport on Tuesday shortly after Ugandan soldiers landed there as the vanguard of an African Union peacekeeping force.

At least 16 loud explosions from the mortar strikes went off near the airport where roughly 350 Ugandans were decamped after landing in the morning, a Reuters' witness said.

"The military side of the airport has been hit. We cannot cross from this side to the other side. We don't know if anyone has been wounded there," said the reporter for a local media outlet, who saw the mortar bombs hit and who declined to be identified.

The military wing is about a kilometre away from the civilian wing of the seaside airport.

Most of the Ugandans were flown in by the Algerian air force in American-made C-130 cargo planes, landing in a city where the interim government and its Ethiopian allies face almost daily attacks.

The Ugandans are the first peacekeepers to enter Mogadishu since a well-funded US and UN peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s failed and ended in a bloody withdrawal after battles with heavily armed militiamen.

Last week, 35 Ugandan officers landed in Baidoa, the government's temporary capital in south-central Somalia. More are expected to arrive in the coming days to bring the Ugandan contingent to about 1 600.

The Ugandans are the vanguard of an AU force designed to help Somalia's interim government secure the Horn of Africa country after routing a rival Islamist movement which held most of southern Somalia for six months.

Leaders of the ousted Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) went into hiding vowing to wage holy war against foreign troops.

"We are ready to deploy and defend the Somali people," said Ugandan army Captain Paddy Ankunda, also a spokesperson for the AU mission.

Two unmarked Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft also brought three white military vehicles emblazoned with AU markings and two armoured personnel carriers.

The AU force, proposed to eventually number about 8 000, is expected to replace Ethiopian troops who helped the government mount a successful December offensive the SICC.

But as with its first peacekeeping foray, in Sudan's Darfur region, the AU is facing a shortage of money and equipment.

"I hope our partners would help us overcome the funding and logistical problems facing the AU," said Said Djinnit, AU's commissioner for peace and security in Addis Ababa.

Officials from President Abdullahi Yusuf's government and warlords who had once ruled Mogadishu were at the airport, which was under heavy security.

Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi and Burundi are also expected to send troops to join the AU force.

The Ugandans are assigned to patrol Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous and gun-infested cities.

None of the previous 13 attempts at a central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre have succeeded in taming the city.

The guerrillas who strike almost daily in Mogadishu are suspected to be a mix of Islamists and clan militiamen who feel the government does not represent their interests, or who stand to lose control of fiefdoms if central authority is imposed.

"Our mission is not to fight, but if the lives of troops are endangered, they have the right to fight back," Djinnit said.

(Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa)

AU peacekeeping force attacked in Somalia

Mar 6 2007 13:19 GMT BBC NEWS World Africa report excerpt:
The airport in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, has been attacked as the first African Union (AU) peacekeepers arrived in the country.

A BBC correspondent says eight mortars were fired during a ceremony to welcome the 400 Ugandan troops.

One person was wounded in the attack and three other civilians have died in heavy clashes elsewhere in the city.
Note, the report explains
The AU force is taking over from Ethiopian troops who intervened to help Somalia's transitional government oust the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

Somalia enjoyed a six-month lull in the insecurity that has dogged the country for the past 16 years while the UIC was in power last year.

But violence has escalated in the past two months.

Monday, March 05, 2007

UK prepares commando unit to free Ethiopia hostages

Mar 5 2007 AFP report (via ST) excerpt;
Britain reportedly prepared a commando unit to rescue five of its nationals kidnapped in northern Ethiopia, as Addis Ababa on Monday refused to back claims that Eritrean soldiers carried out the abduction.

The Britons, all linked to Britain’s embassy in Addis Ababa, were kidnapped last Thursday in the remote Afar desert region near the Eritrean border, according to the Ethiopian state news agency.

London has already sent a crisis team to Ethiopia in an effort to obtain the release of the five, along with their Ethiopian drivers and interpreters.

Some 60 SAS troops have already been dispatched to neighbouring Djibouti, the British Daily Mirror reported Monday, while the Times talked of a "substantial" team and the Guardian said special forces were already in Ethiopia itself.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Hunt for missing British tourists

Whitehall officials earlier told the BBC there was "a national security dimension" to the group's disappearance. - BBC Mar 3 2007.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Ugandan troops 'not peacemakers' (BBC)

Mar 1 2007 BBC news report excerpt:
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni says Ugandan soldiers being deployed to Somalia, will not disarm militias.

Mr Museveni, who bade farewell to 1,700 troops at a ceremony in Jinja, said they will train the Somali army, help the government, but not impose peace.

An advance team of African Union (AU) troops reportedly arrived in Baidoa in southern Somalia on Thursday.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

First batch of AU peacekeepers lands in Somalia

Mar 1 2007 Reuters report:
By Sahal Abdulle

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The Ugandan vanguard of an African peacekeeping force intended to help Somalia's interim government tighten its tenuous grip on the anarchic nation flew into the country on Thursday, witnesses said.

Underlining the formidable task awaiting the African Union (AU) mission, gunmen shot dead three people at the house of the director of Mogadishu's port, the latest in a wave of guerrilla-style attacks in the coastal capital.

A cargo plane dropped off 35 uniformed Ugandan officers early in the morning at the government stronghold of Baidoa, customs officer Ali Mohamed Adan said. Police officer Isak Hassan Warsame also said he saw the Ugandan officers land.

But Ugandan army Capt. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU mission, denied any military personnel had left yet. "There are no troops in Somalia," he said in Uganda.

Baidoa is the south-central trading town the government used as a temporary base before ousting militant Islamists from Mogadishu in a December offensive backed by Ethiopia's military.

The town is expected to be a key rear staging area for the proposed 8,000-strong AU force, designed to replace Ethiopian troops who helped President Abdullahi Yusuf's government defeat the Islamists in less than two weeks.

The Ugandan peacekeepers are due to patrol Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous and gun-infested cities.

In the latest attack there, unidentified gunmen struck the house of port director Abdi Jiinow on Thursday morning. A reporter at the scene, Abdullahi Addow, said three people died -- one attacker, a bodyguard and a visitor to the house.


Uganda has kept the exact troop deployment date secret, aware that insurgents who blast away almost daily at joint government-Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu have threatened to attack any peacekeepers or government allies.

The insurgents are suspected to be a mix of Islamist guerrillas and clan militia fighting for control of the city.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni waved off two battalions of peacekeepers at a ceremony on Thursday as they prepared to deploy. Officials said the 1,635 troops would land in Mogadishu, as soon as equipment arrives by sea, probably next week.

"This is a fully capable force to undertake any task within (its) mandate," Museveni shouted out to silent rows of soldiers in bright green AU berets at a barracks in Jinja, east of Kampala, where they underwent peacekeeping training.

Last year, Uganda denied witness accounts and a U.N. report that a handful of its personnel were inside Somalia. Ethiopia did likewise for most of 2006, denying almost daily witness sightings of thousands of its troops.

Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi and Burundi are also expected to send troops to bring the force to about half its planned strength of nine battalions.

As with its previous peacekeeping foray in Sudan's violent Darfur region, the AU is facing a shortage of money and equipment.

Somalia has been in anarchy since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. A well-funded U.S.-U.N. peacekeeping mission in the mid-1990s ended in failure and a bloody withdrawal.

Under foreign pressure to make his government more inclusive, Yusuf told parliament on Thursday a national reconciliation conference would be held in Mogadishu on April 16 with 3,000 delegates from Somalia's myriad clans and factions.