Somali Islamists gain ground in march toward capital
Ethiopian troops guard Mogadishu
NAIROBI - An increasingly powerful Islamic insurgency is advancing toward Somalia's seaside capital, capturing town after town and seizing territory from the weak United Nations-backed government, often without firing a shot.
But analysts say the hard-line militants cannot achieve their ultimate goal of laying siege to Mogadishu, the capital, while powerful Ethiopian troops remain stationed in the once-beautiful city on the shore of the Indian Ocean.
Somalia's two-year insurgency has already killed thousands and is likely to continue as fighters consolidate territory, undermining peace talks between more moderate opposition members and the government. The UN has tried to advance the talks, but a recent deal seems only to have worsened the violence.
Militants from Al-Shabab - which the United States considers a terrorist organization - have refused to take part in the peace talks, saying Ethiopian troops that support the government must leave first. The group aims to impose Shariah law on Somalia.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a socialist dictator and turned their clan-based militias on one another. After decades of violence, half the population is expected to be dependent on aid by the end of the year.
The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden has declared his support for the Islamists. It accuses al-Shabab of harboring the Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Yesterday, al-Shabab added the town of Merka, 56 miles from the capital, to its list of conquests after poorly paid government fighters simply ran away.
The group now controls most of the country's south, with the crucial exceptions of Mogadishu and Baidoa, where the parliament sits.
"Nearly 200 heavily armed fighters loyal to al-Shabab, with several vehicles mounted with machine-guns, have moved into our town early this morning unopposed," witness Abdi-Nur Haji Muridi said in an interview from Merka.
Al-Shabab was part of the Islamic militia that controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia for six months in 2006 before Ethiopian troops arrived to drive them out with the tacit support of the United States.
The group quickly fractured into hard-line and more moderate factions. Al-Shabab's hard-liners are at the heart of the insurgency, which has killed thousands of civilians caught up in roadside bombs, grenade attacks, and mortar fire.
The United States sent some special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces in 2006 and in early 2007 conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected Al Qaeda members.
Meanwhile, al-Shabab has been setting up its own administrations that adhere to strict Islamic law. In Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city, fighters recently stoned a girl to death before thousands of spectators, accusing her of adultery. Human Rights Watch, citing the girl's father, later reported she was a 13-year-old rape victim.