Islamic rebels take Somali port city; capital on edge

Mohammed is a special correspondent; Sanders is a Times staff writer.

Islamic insurgents seized a strategic port city in Somalia on Wednesday, raising fears that they were gearing up for an assault on the capital, about 50 miles away.

The fighters, wearing red head scarves and chanting “God is great,” marched into Marka without firing a shot. Government troops had fled the night before upon hearing that an attack was imminent, residents said.

“Hundreds of shocked people gathered in the streets and tensions are very high,” resident Hussein Mohammed Isahak said in a telephone interview.


The seizure followed similar incidents in the port of Kismayo and several other southern and central Somali cities in recent months.

Islamic insurgents, who were routed from the capital, Mogadishu, by Ethiopian troops in December 2006, have mounted a strong comeback this year. They have retaken much of the territory they lost two years ago.

Though Mogadishu remains under the control of Somalia’s fragile transitional government and thousands of Ethiopian troops, the city of Baidoa, where the parliament is based, is under so much threat that many lawmakers have fled.

“They are regrouping,” Richard Barno, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said of the militants. “Is this part of a bigger plan to take over Mogadishu? I think so. They are preparing themselves.”

The Bush administration has backed the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia to shore up the government there, fearing that rebels could seize control of the Horn of Africa nation and provide a refuge for foreign Islamic militants.

The seizure of Marka comes amid peace talks between the government and one opposition faction. But the most dangerous insurgent group, Shabab, which has acknowledged ties with Al Qaeda, has rejected the negotiations and vowed to overthrow the government.

The same group took responsibility for Wednesday’s seizure. Several local government officials have been assassinated in the city in the last month, including the acting governor and a deputy police commissioner.

“Our martyrs are in full control of the town,” Mohammed Awil, a Shabab commander, said by telephone from Marka. “We will govern all of Somalia through Islamic law, reaching our goal step by step.”

As happened during the Islamists’ six-month reign of Mogadishu in 2006, religious leaders are imposing brutal new rules for people living under their control.

In Kismayo last month, a 13-year-old girl was publicly stoned to death after being accused of adultery. Amnesty International later said the girl had been gang-raped and was betrayed by the local officials she turned to for help.

Officials for the United Nations’ World Food Program, which uses Marka as a delivery point to distribute aid to 855,000 people in Somalia, said they hoped to continue their work.

“WFP is a neutral organization,” said spokesman Peter Smerdon. “We work with the authorities in place.”

He noted that the agency was already delivering aid in regions controlled by the Shabab militia.




Shabab’s goal: Islamic law

Shabab, which means “the youth,” began as a group of young militants tied to the Islamic Courts Union, strict Muslims who seized control of much of Somalia in 2006. Later that year, the union was driven from power by Somali forces and Ethiopian troops and fled into exile.

Shabab survived and launched an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Somali government and its Ethiopian allies. The group, which seeks in part to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, has 2,000 to 3,000 fighters, according to some estimates.

Early this year, the State Department added Shabab to its list of terrorist groups. On May 1, Shabab leader Aden Hashi Ayro was killed by a missile fired by a U.S. Navy warship stationed off the coast of Somalia.

After once denying or downplaying links to Al Qaeda, a senior Shabab military leader this summer acknowledged those ties and pledged to expand them. “We are negotiating how we can unite into one,” said Muktar Robow, the commander. “We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students.”


Sources: Times staff and library resources