Somali president seen on front lines in fight against militants

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Dressed in camouflage and hunkering among his soldiers, Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed appeared on the front lines Thursday in an offensive against Islamic militants in his country’s shattered capital of Mogadishu, witnesses and government officials said.

Fierce firefights rumbled across the city on the 50th anniversary of Somali independence, a landmark spoiled by years of civil war, a refugee crisis and the rise of an Al Qaeda-linked Islamic group that controls all but a few of Mogadishu’s streets. Ahmed’s arrival on the battlefield was a dramatic gesture to raise morale among a contingent of African Union troops and underpaid Somali soldiers.

“Today the president was involved on the front line of the battle in northern Mogadishu against terrorist elements,” Abdirashid Khalif, the president’s spokesman, told The Times in a brief telephone conversation punctuated by the echo of gunshots.

News reports and witnesses said Ahmed clambered aboard a tank and carried an assault rifle, but it was not clear how directly he was involved in combat.

A moderate Islamist, Ahmed fought warlords for control of the capital years ago as leader of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders. Since becoming president last year, he has worked with the neighboring countries and the West in an attempt to restore order to a lawless land where hundreds of thousands have been killed or displaced.

Thursday’s battle suggested the early stages of the government’s anticipated offensive against the Al Qaeda-linked Shabab organization. The group has imposed an Islamic law that includes public beheadings, the banning of music and the prohibition on watching the World Cup soccer tournament. Shabab members have assassinated Cabinet ministers and regularly pummel government buildings with mortar rounds and rockets. On Tuesday, Shabab captured a key police station in a northern neighborhood.

“We have collected 17 bodies and 41 wounded people from across Mogadishu since yesterday,” said Ali Muse Sheik, head of Nationlink & Africa Lifeline Ambulance Services. “The casualties are not so many compared to the artillery barrages that have landed in many places.”

Figures released later in the day put the number of dead at 27, including 10 killed when an artillery shell struck a building where families were hiding. There were also reports that Shabab had destroyed a government tank.

The African Union and Somali troops, including child soldiers, number about 15,000. Shabab and its allies have an estimated 5,000 militants. In recent weeks, an unknown number of Somali soldiers, frustrated by the lack of pay and intimidated by Shabab, have fled the military’s ranks. Government commanders insisted that the defections would not weaken the military’s push against its enemies.

“The president wore a black bulletproof jacket and was on a tank entering deeply into battle zones this morning,” said Abdwale Ibrahim Saed, a resident in the Abdiasis district in north Mogadishu. “There were many soldiers accompanying him.”

The United States has helped train and fund the Somali army in a bid to end a nearly 20-year-old civil war and rout Islamic extremism from the Horn of Africa.

Shabab formally linked itself to Al Qaeda this year and has since attracted hundreds of foreign fighters, including many crossing the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. Western intelligence agencies worry about a bond between Shabab and the Yemen-based militant group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Militant leaders, including Moalim Mohammed Farah, a senior official with Hizbul Islam, warned Somalis not to celebrate their independence day.

“We call on the Muslim people to avoid commemorating what they call the national day, as it was inherited from the infidels,” Farah was quoted as saying from Mogadishu. “We warn the local media and journalists against attending the ceremonies. Anyone found covering the national day events will face bad consequences.”

The country became whole in 1960 when the British protectorate Somaliland won independence June 26 and merged with a former Italian-controlled territory July 1.

Special correspondent Mohammed reported from Mogadishu and Fleishman from Cairo.