Somali govt's call to halt advance dismays allies

AP News
Posted: Oct 25, 2011 11:54 AM
Somali govt's call to halt advance dismays allies

American and European officials on Tuesday joined some Somali residents in expressing dismay over comments from Somalia's president that called on foreign military allies to stop twin advances against Islamic insurgents.

The remarks called into question President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed's commitment to fighting his former allies _ Islamist militants.

Ahmed on Monday publicly told Kenya to halt its military advance in southern Somalia. Diplomats say he also privately asked African Union troops not to move beyond the Deynile neighborhood of Mogadishu, where they are fighting al-Shabab militants for control.

The dual offensives have forced the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab to defend itself on two fronts and helped put the weak U.N.-backed Somali government in its strongest position in years. The government, backed by 9,000 African Union soldiers, now holds almost all the capital.

A U.S. official said there was concern and dismay over Ahmed's comments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Officially, both African Union and Kenyan officials are tightlipped in their response to Ahmed.

"We are not responding to him in the media," said Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua. He said the speech would not change Kenya's military plans in southern Somalia, which aim to capture the port city of Kismayo, the main source of revenues for the insurgency.

Kenyan troops drove across the barren scrubland of the Kenya-Somalia border earlier this month after a string of kidnappings by Somali gunmen on Kenyan territory. Kenya's government has been calling for more than two years for a buffer state to be established along the border to help improve security.

On Tuesday, gunmen kidnapped a 32-year-old American woman, a 60-year-old Danish man and their Somali colleague working for the Danish Demining Group in the northern Somali town of Galkayo.

A spokesman for the African Union force, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, declined to comment on the reports that Ahmed had asked the AU troops to stop their advance.

American and European officials in Nairobi said they were dismayed by the president's remarks, although they declined to be named because the matter was diplomatically sensitive. The U.S. and the EU are the two biggest financial contributors to the AU mission. Neither is directly financially supporting the Kenyan operation although Kenya receives military aid from both powers.

Not all Somalis welcomed his comments, either.

"If he does not want Kenya's help does he want al-Shabab to stay on?" asked Hakima Abdi, a teacher from Kismayo who fled when militants banned her from teaching at her school. "That kind of comment is moving us toward further fighting and lack of genuine government. My view is that we need all help from the world to eliminate the ruthless al-Shabab."

Ahmed's words seemed to contradict an agreement between the Kenyan and the Somali government last week to coordinate their security operations, a British official said.

They also appeared to catch his Cabinet by surprise. A senior Somali official said Somalia's American-educated prime minister was not consulted before Ahmed spoke, but the official speculated that the president might be trying to take a popular public stand amid concerns that Kenyan bombing raids are causing civilian casualties and damaging Kismayo's port.

Ahmed is a quietly spoken former teacher who rose to become an insurgent leader by fighting Ethiopian troops who invaded Somalia in 2006. He joined the government two years ago as part of a peace deal and many officials speculate he is under pressure to demonstrate to his political base _ conservative politicians backed by Middle Eastern nations _ that he can control the Kenya advance.

Burundian soldiers have been fighting hard to take Deynile, and lost between 30 and 50 soldiers in a single day last week, a Somali official said. The AU has only publicly acknowledged 10 deaths, but the fighting is continuing.

At least 95 Burundian troops have been wounded, a security official told The Associated Press from Mogadishu.

On Monday, al-Shabab published a statement claiming to have killed 150 Burundians and calling on them to leave the country. The group routinely exaggerates the number of soldiers it has killed.

After taking Deynile, AU soldiers would most likely press on toward the heavily populated Afgoye corridor, home to one of the world's largest camps of displaced people and an al-Shabab command headquarters. As long as al-Shabab controls that territory, it can still launch suicide attacks on the capital.

The reason for the president's request to halt the AU advance was unclear. He is believed to be in talks with some al-Shabab leaders, one Nairobi-based official said. The government has long invited insurgent leaders to hold peace talks, but more are said to be coming forward now as the military pressure increases.