Somalia fears key Ramadan dates will bring more Islamist attacks


Somalia fears key Ramadan dates will bring more Islamist attacks

Mogadishu civilians move out as al-Shabaab militia threatens ‘massive, final’ war on government
Xan Rice, east Africa correspondent

Al-Shebaab fighters on patrol in Mogadishu
Al-Shabaab forces patrol in northern Mogadishu’s Suqaholaha neighbourhood before an offensive on Monday which left at least 12 dead. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Mogadishu’s battered civilian population is bracing itself for further fierce fighting, with Islamist rebels expected to step up attacks on government-allied forces and African Union peacekeepers towards the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
More than 70 people have died in the Somali capital since the start of the week, when the al-Shabaab militia declared a new “massive, final” war on the government. Among the victims were 33 people, including six MPs, who were killed in a massacre by Shabaab militants at a hotel on Tuesday.
Residents near the frontlines took advantage of a brief lull in fighting today to escape to safer areas or out of the city, ahead of an expected resumption in clashes.

“Everyone is very afraid of what is going to happen in the next few days,” said Bashir Yusuf Osman, manager of the Peace hotel in Mogadishu, in a telephone interview. “People believe that there is no way to stop this fighting.”
Amid the heaviest clashes in the battle-scarred city for about six months, the rebels have captured ground from government troops and their allied militias on several fronts. Six thousand African Union peacekeepers have however managed to protect the presidential palace and other important locations, such as the airport and seaport. The presence of the Ugandan and Burundian soldiers is likely to ensure that the fragile transitional federal government (TFG) survives the latest onslaught, according to Somalia analysts.
But security experts advising humanitarian organisations working in the country have warned that the rebels, who killed 73 people in suicide bombings in Uganda last month, could attempt further “spectacular attacks” to coincide with two important dates in the Ramadan calendar. The first is Saturday, the 17th day of the fast, a celebration of an important Muslim victory over unbelievers in the seventh century. Monday is the anniversary of the prophet Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca.
Though Somalia is almost completely Muslim, the Islamist rebel leaders portrayed their rebellion as a holy war against a government backed by Western infidels and “invaders” – their description of the African peacekeepers. They rejected a call from President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed for a ceasefire during the holy month of fasting.
“For al-Shabaab, attacks of jihad during Ramadan are seen as scoring additional points,” said a Somalia security expert in Nairobi who regularly travels to Mogadishu and requested anonymity for his own safety. “They have very little to lose.”
Reports suggest the rebels have called in reinforcements, including suicide attackers, from other parts of Somalia, to assist them in taking on the peacekeepers, TFG troops and Ahlu Sunna, a moderate Sufi Muslim militia that is opposed to al-Shabaab’s harsh interpretation of Islam.
Abdirahman Omar Osman, the government’s minister of information, said in a statement today that its troops had, together with the African Union’s Somalia mission (Amisom), managed to contain the al-Shabaab offensive, and had killed more than 25 rebels. He warned though that the militants “may still get through to murder innocent people, so we need the citizens of the Mogadishu to remain vigilant”.
The Nairobi-based security expert said the extreme weakness of government forces was a big concern to Amisom and to western countries backing the TFG, but only rated the risk of Sharif’s administration and the peacekeepers being forced to withdraw any time soon as “low to medium”. Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, agreed that there was a need to be circumspect about suggestions that al-Shabaab would succeed in taking over the city.
“It’s very difficult to analyse exactly what is going on without being on the ground,” he said. “What does seem likely is that fighting will escalate until the end of Ramadan.”

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