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6727Return to Somalia: The war on terror - a new front

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  • Zafar Khan
    Jun 4, 2006
      Return to Somalia: The war on terror - a new front
      Thirteen years ago, the US pulled out of the east
      African country after the bloody events that inspired
      'Black Hawk Down'. Now it is back, supporting warlords
      in their battle with Islamist militants. Kim Sengupta
      reports from Merka
      Published: 02 June 2006


      Living in the anarchy of Somalia, the sights of
      violence are nothing new to Halima Ahmed. But a
      one-year-old baby lying in the street, one leg severed
      by a mortar shell, is an image of horror that still
      haunts her.

      "I saw him at Yakshik district, someone's little boy,"
      said Mrs Ahmed, 50. "There was nothing I could do. His
      leg has been cut off, and he died. There were lots of
      dead bodies, but it is the boy I cannot forget. I keep
      on seeing him. It is terrible what is happening here,

      Like many among her people, Mrs Ahmed is used to
      hardship which would shatter many from more
      comfortable, affluent societies. Her husband was
      killed in a sporadic shooting last year, and her
      85-year-old mother is severely ill and has no access
      to medicine. But for her and others, the carnage now
      in the capital, Mogadishu, has tipped this failed
      state to a particularly barbaric point of no return.

      Thirteen years after the US suffered one of its most
      humiliating military defeats - an ignoble retreat
      casting a shadow over Washington's foreign policy for
      a generation - the Americans are back in Somalia.

      This is now the latest battleground in US's global,
      post-9/11 war on terror. Hundreds have been killed and
      wounded in the worst fighting in the country in 15
      years as American-backed warlords engage Islamist
      militias in fierce house-to-house fighting in the

      There is little food or water. Those not trapped by
      the pulverising shelling are desperately trying to get
      out of the city, by foot, with younger men carrying
      the elderly and the infirm; by carts; or, for the
      precious few who can afford it, on battered buses and
      coaches straining with twice the load they were meant
      to carry.

      The dead lie on the streets with people often afraid
      to move the bodies for fear of snipers. The wounded,
      some dug from under rubble, are taken to hospital by
      Mogadishu's unofficial ambulance service,

      But the hospitals themselves are scenes of chaos with
      patients huddled in filthy corridors. An acute
      shortage of medicine and trained staff is exacerbated
      by Kalashnikov-waving militia fighters commandeering
      supplies and demanding priority treatment.

      A temporary ceasefire between the two warring factions
      ended at the weekend with renewed artillery, mortar
      and rocket-propelled grenades pounding through the
      city. Many of the rounds were fired indiscriminately
      into civilian areas, claiming more lives and causing
      further destruction.

      The Keysane Hospital, the main treatment centre during
      the present conflict, was itself hit by mortar rounds.
      Four people, including a two-year-old boy and a
      14-year-old girl, were among those killed. At another
      hospital, the Medina, Sheikh Doon Salad Elmi shrugs
      his shoulders wearily. "We are finding it very hard to
      cope with the huge number of wounded. There are more
      than 100 of them at the hospital. A 24-year-old boy
      who had a bullet lodged in his brain just died in
      front of me. I could do nothing to save him."

      Out in the pot-holed streets, rival militia fighters
      roar along on their gun-mounted "technicals",
      Somalia's infamous four-wheel-drive war wagons, the
      pickups churning up billowing clouds of dust, trading
      fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled-grenade
      launchers. They seldom hit each other, but civilians
      are often shot.

      But most of the destruction inflicted in the latest
      bout of fighting has been through the use of heavy
      artillery and mortars in an urban landscape of
      condensed and crumbling housing. "I saw five bodies
      lying near the road to the airport," said Mohammed
      Lamane. "They were there for days, and people fear to
      be attacked when collecting them."

      Isa Mohammed Gul, 60, fled from his home with his
      family of 14 after nights of pulverising bombardment.
      "I said to my wife that if we stay for one more night,
      surely we will die," he said. "So we just ran away the
      next day, leaving everything behind. We had no other
      choice." Mr Gul's sister has been killed and he is now
      frantically trying to find her children and get them
      out of the city.

      Others, especially the elderly and the infirm, are not
      able to escape, stuck in their houses, often injured,
      often cut off from other members of their extended
      family by the shifting frontline.

      Khalida Bassem, 30, said: "They are just firing the
      shells in every direction. The wounded are not getting
      any treatment, and some are in their seventies and
      eighties. Some have been taken in by neighbours; we
      have taken some, but others cannot go anywhere."

      As darkness fell yesterday there was little sign of an
      end to the fighting. Ali Nur, a warlord's militia
      commander, said: "I cannot say there is calm because
      both groups are preparing for war." He was visiting
      wounded fellow fighters at the Medina Hospital.
      "Islamic forces have barricaded the road and fighting
      can start again any time."

      The Islamist militias are under the nominal control of
      a committee of sharia courts. Its chairman, Sheikh
      Sharif Ahmed, a man who cultivates a scholastic
      demeanour, claimed CIA officials had been into the
      city to liaise with their client warlords. "The
      warlords have no powers to enforce a ceasefire without
      American approval because they are under a contract,"
      he said.

      In 1993, the US sent in a massively armed task force,
      the overwhelmingly dominant member of a United Nations
      mission to Somalia, to smash the warlords. The end to
      the operation, with an American helicopter shot down,
      is recalled in celluloid in the endless showings of
      the film Black Hawk Down.

      By the time Operation Restore Hope ended, between
      6,000 and 10,000 Somalis had died. The shock of the
      reversal, one of the most embarrassing episodes in the
      recent history of the world's only superpower,
      paralysed the administration of President Bill Clinton
      for years and was a major factor in Washington's
      unwillingness to intervene in the Bosnia conflict.

      Now the US is backing the same warlords who humiliated
      them the last time. Among the beneficiaries of
      Washington's new policy is Hussein Mohammed Aidid, the
      son of Mohammed Farah Aidid, on whom the Americans had
      once placed a bounty of $1m (£535,000). Aidid died 10
      years ago.

      Somalia's supposed rulers, the Transitional Federal
      Government, cannot get into Mogadishu and has set up
      headquarters in internal exile, at the provincial town
      of Baidoa. Its President, Abdullahi Yusuf, has
      bitterly complained that American support for the
      warlords is severely undermining his government's
      chances of gaining power.

      But cheering Islamist fighters, their faces covered by
      jihadist scarves, and technicals displaying quotes
      from the Koran, have gained the upper hand. Their
      militias have driven through the positions of the
      warlords' "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and
      Counterterrorism" and have taken over almost 90 per
      cent of the capital. They have captured a strategic
      junction, K4, giving control of two crucial road
      links: to the airport and towards the TFG headquarters
      in Baidoa.

      The Islamist fighters have also made the symbolic gain
      of a hotel in the centre of the city, The Sahafi, a
      landmark traditionally used by visiting diplomats,
      politicians and journalists. But the real prize is
      that they now control the Bakaraaha market, one of the
      biggest arms bazaars in Africa, giving them access to
      even more weaponry, which means more civilian

      Ibrahim Hussein Ali, a 33-year-old carpenter, has lost
      a brother and a cousin to the fighting.

      "It is the worst I have ever seen, I would say worse
      than the last time [in 1993]. My brother was 38 and my
      cousin 22. They did not belong to any armed groups.
      They were killed when their homes were shelled. I do
      not know anything about al-Qa'ida or the Americans.
      But these people are getting their guns from

      The growing violence in Somalia has brought increasing
      comparisons with Afghanistan, another poverty-stricken
      Third World state used by the United States in its
      confrontation with resurgent Islam.

      Somalia was abandoned by the West after the American
      withdrawal in much the same way Afghanistan was
      abandoned at the end of the Russian war. The vacuum in
      Afghanistan was filled by the emergence of the
      Taliban, initially seen as an antidote to the
      lawlessness of the warlords, and the subsequent
      arrival of Osama bin Laden.

      In Somalia, too, the Islamists, supported by Sunni
      Wahabi groups in the Gulf and some neighbouring
      states, are now getting a degree of support for
      bringing a semblance of order the semi-anarchic state.

      The methods they use are the brutal punishments meted
      out through their sharia courts. The son of a man
      murdered by stab wounds asked to inflict the same
      number of wounds with a knife on the convicted killer;
      women are stoned; and thieves have their hands

      The Americans claim this "Talibanisation" has allowed
      al-Qa'ida to make Somalia their headquarters in the
      horn of Africa. US officials make little effort in
      private to disguise their role in Somalia. Questioned
      about links with the warlords, Tony Snow, the White
      House press secretary, drew a thinly veiled analogy
      with Afghanistan.

      "There is concern about the presence of foreign
      terrorists, particularly al-Qa'ida, within Somalia
      right now. In an environment of instability, as we
      have seen, al-Qai'da may take root, and we want to
      make sure al-Qa'ida does not in fact establish a
      beachhead in Somalia."

      A report for the United Nations Security Council has
      charted the American role in Somalia in what is
      described as "clandestine third-country involvement".
      Without explicitly naming the US, it says Washington
      has provided covert funding "to help organise and
      structure a military force created to counter the
      threat posed by the growing fundamentalist movement in
      central and southern Somalia".

      The US has set up the 2,000-strong Combined Joint Task
      Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in neighbouring
      Djibouti to counter the Islamist threat. Human rights
      groups say armed gangs paid by Americans have abducted
      people. Some have turned up at Guantanamo Bay and the
      US base at Bagram in Afghanistan.

      In Mogadishu, warlords are keen to talk about "foreign
      fighters". One, Muse Sudi Yalahow, said they have come
      mostly from neighbouring countries - Djibouti,
      Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan - and further
      afield, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
      Another commander, Mohammed Qanyare Afrah, shows
      photographs of Islamist fighters, one a light-skinned
      man who he insists is non-Somali, and a darker-skinned
      man who is said to be from Sudan.

      The supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic courts,
      Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is believed to be
      sympathetic to al-Qa'ida and has allegedly set up
      madrassas in Mogadishu, where boys and young men are
      allegedly trained to use weapons and explosives.

      His nephew, Aden Hashi Ayro, an Islamist leader, is
      said to have trained as a terrorist in Afghan-istan
      and is suspected of being behind a string of bombings
      and assassinations in the past year.

      But the claims of al-Qa'ida presence, and the American
      method of dealing with it, has led to dissent within
      the administration and questions from European and
      African allies. Critics believe the warlords have
      significantly exaggerated the foreign fighters' scare
      to ensure the supply of money from Washington does not
      dry up. The reports of US involvement is said to be,
      in fact, counter-productive, enabling the Islamists to
      claim the anti-imperialist mantle.

      Michael Zorick, an American diplomat, was moved from
      his posting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the State
      Department hub for East Africa, to Chad after, it is
      said, he wrote a critical report about the Somalia

      The US embassy in Kenya refused to discuss the reasons
      for Mr Zorick's transfer, but it is believed the
      Somali policy is being reviewed for the State
      Department's head of counter-terrorism, Henry "Hank"
      Crumpton. Diplomatic sources say the State Department
      view of this is unlikely to have any impact on what
      the CIA and the Pentagon want to do.

      In Somalia, thousands of refugees have fled Mogadishu
      for the town of Merka, 40 miles away. They have ended
      up in the outskirts of the town, on arid land miles
      from food and water, in makeshift tents made from

      The UN's special adviser on displaced people, Dennis
      McNamara, took a delegation to the town to prepare
      emergency efforts to cope with the influx.

      Hadida Mahmoud, 25, arrived there with three of her
      children after walking for three days. Her
      seven-year-old daughter runs away crying at the sight
      of a group of policemen. "She is scared of men with
      guns, all the children are scared," said the young

      "We have had to leave because if we had stayed in
      Mogadishu our children would not have survived. My
      husband is back there looking after the house. I do
      not know when we will see him again. Here we have
      peace, but no food. I don't know what we are going to
      do. We need help."

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