Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Islamists introduce sharia after Baidoa capture

Sheikh Sharif Ahmed (centre) leader of opposition Alliance for Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), arrives for the opening ceremony of peace talks with the Somalia government in Djibouti, January 25, 2009. Photo/REUTERS 

BAIDOA (Somalia), Tuesday
Somalia’s hardline Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab said today it had introduced sharia law in Baidoa, a day after taking the town that had been a government stronghold and seat of parliament.

Fighters from al Shabaab, which is on Washington’s list of terrorist groups, captured Baidoa yesterday after the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops who had been supporting the government.

They quickly took the airport, parliament building and president’s home, and called locals to a meeting at a football stadium today to explain how they would govern.

“We will not accept a government which is not working with sharia. We shall make changes in the town and will rule by Islamic law,” al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Muktar Robow Mansoor told hundreds of people in the stadium.

Al Shabaab’s takeover of Baidoa has thrust it back into the spotlight in Somalia after it appeared to be losing support among the population because of hardline tactics, and had lost some territory to another, moderate Islamist group.

Near-daily attacks

The town’s capture also poses a big practical problem to Somalia’s parliament, which is meeting this week in neighbouring Djibouti, but obviously cannot return to Baidoa.

The government is now restricted to Mogadishu, but even there it faces near-daily attacks from the insurgents.

Whether parliamentarians would agree to relocate to the battle-scarred, half-empty, coastal city is unknown.

In Djibouti, the legislators have voted to expand parliament to bring in moderate Islamists in an attempt to form a unity government.

They are also due to elect a new national president, under a UN-brokered plan to bring peace to the Horn of Africa nation for the first time in 18 years.

But al Shabaab has rejected the Djibouti talks.

Sheikh Mansoor urged Baidoa residents to stay calm, after looting of empty Ethiopian bases and widespread fighting on Monday, and vowed that the Islamists would provide security.

“Those who looted property of the government yesterday should return within two days or else they will be brought before an Islamic court,” he said. “Any member of the government who is not fighting against us will not be harmed.”

Al Shabaab’s presence in Baidoa, near the border with Ethiopia, will annoy Addis Ababa, which this week ended a two-year military intervention in Somalia precisely to curb the Islamist threat. Ethiopia has kept a heavy troop presence on the border.

Mounted with guns

Local residents said al Shabaab fighters were moving round Baidoa on foot and on the back of pickups mounted with guns.

“We must welcome them, because we have no other choice,” said shopkeeper Ismael Aden. But we are afraid what happened in Kismayu might happen in Baidoa in the near future.” (Reuters)

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