By CHRIS TOMLINSON
The Associated Press
Friday, April 27, 2007; 1:46 PM
NAIROBI, Kenya -- A day after the Somalia's interim government claimed victory in its battle with Islamic militiamen in the capital, they were back Friday _ attacking a Mogadishu hotel used by top officials.
Driven from power last year by a Western-supported offensive, the Islamists have fresh recruits and new funding and are threatening to turn the country back into a haven for al-Qaida.
More than 1,400 people have been killed over the last month, 400 in the last five days, in violence caused at least in part by the militants, who have been infiltrating towns across the country.
At stake is the most strategically located nation in the Horn of Africa _ a lawless land that is a crossroads between the Middle East and Africa and dominates important sea lanes. A U.N.-supported government has tried to exert control, but has influence over only a tiny part of the territory.
The government's failure has opened the door for a resurgence by Islamic radicals who grabbed power for six months last year, filling Somalia's power vacuum with a strict religious government. Like the Taliban who once ruled Afghanistan and hosted Osama bin Laden, the Somali movement, the Council of Islamic Courts, harbors al-Qaida terrorists, U.S. officials say.
The U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, who also oversees Somalia issues, said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that the group is a danger not only to Somalia but surrounding countries.
Its military wing, the Shabab, harbors al-Qaida members responsible for terror attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, he said, and Saudi Arabia's government worries Somalia has become an important training ground for Saudis affiliated with al-Qaida, much as Afghanistan once was.
"We regard it as a real danger that the Council of Islamic Courts remnants are clearly making very significant efforts to regroup," he said.
Small Shabab units were sent to the towns of Kismayo, Merka and Jowhar on Saturday, a Shabab member said, asking not to be identified for fear of retribution.
A more senior Shabab member said the group has rebounded since the Western-supported military sweep led by the Ethiopian army.
"We were defeated by the Ethiopians and driven from Mogadishu. We fled to the jungle. And we were bombed there, so now we are back in Mogadishu. We cannot leave Somalia, so we must fight to the death, or defeat the government," he said, insisting his name not be used for fear of being targeted.
He told AP the Shabab now has about 5,000 militiamen and recruits join everyday.
The resurgence of the Shabab has driven prices at Mogadishu's main weapons market to an all-time high, dealers said. No one is sure where the money is coming from, but many Somalis assume it is from outside the country.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, accused Ethiopia's longtime rival, Eritrea, of arming the Shabab.
"Eritrea has not been playing a constructive role in Somalia because they continue to fund, arm, train and advise the insurgents, especially the al-Shabab militia," she said in Washington on Tuesday.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have been bitter enemies since the Eritreans won their independence with a three-decade rebellion. Ethiopia also is a historically Christian nation in the Muslim region, fueling radical Islamic opposition to its Somali intervention.
It appears the Shabab still has most of an arsenal of 200 shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles that intelligence services reported last year had been shipped from Eritrea. At least 10 have been fired, bringing down a cargo plane and an Ethiopian attack helicopter, according to an AP tally, and one was reported captured by the Somali government Monday.
The location of the remaining missiles is unknown. They could be used against civilian aircraft throughout the region.
Ten al-Qaida operatives remain in Somalia and are at least partially responsible for the growing violence in the capital, Mogadishu, the State Department says. Six of them are well-known Somali leaders in the Islamic courts, while four are international al-Qaida members with years of experience in Africa, it says.
Somalia's government last week launched a new offensive against the Shabab, which had been conducting regular hit-and-run attacks.
Last month the Shabab provided Al-Jazeera television with a video of a suicide car bombing at an Ethiopian base, along with a videotaped final statement by the bomber. Somalia's deputy defense minister, Salad Ali Jelle, said al-Qaida and the Shabab were responsible for another car bombing at an Ethiopian base April 19.
Government and Ethiopian troops last conducted an operation to flush the Shabab out of Mogadishu in late March. But when civilians were killed in the crossfire, secular clan militias joined the fight alongside the Shabab. Four days of battle killed more than 1,000 people, but made little difference, said residents and elders from the Hawiye clan, the largest in Mogadishu.
In the three weeks between that round of fighting and the current one, residents in the town of Dhusa Mareb, 270 miles northeast of Mogadishu, have described large aircraft delivering arms and fighting men to the Islamic militants.
Regional diplomats and intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss such information, confirmed the reports' validity, but said they were not sure of the scale of the shipments.
Key to ending the fighting are the Hawiye clan leaders who control most of Mogadishu and want a greater role in the government.
Hawiye elders, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, told AP they do not necessarily support the Islamic extremists. But until President Abdullahi Yusuf agrees to share power, they said the international community cannot expect them to exert their authority.
Diplomats from around the world are pressing the government to reach a comprehensive power-sharing deal with the Hawiye before the Shabab and al-Qaida can scale up their insurgency, Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi, said.
He said clan elders could throw their support behind the al-Qaida-backed extremists if a political accommodation is not reached soon and civilian deaths continue to mount.
The Islamic courts controlled Mogadishu for only six months in 2006, but those were the most peaceful months since 1991, when Somalia's last strong national government collapsed and clan rivalries fractured the country.
Frazer, Washington's top diplomat for African issues, visited Somalia on April 7 to press the government to pursue peace talks. At a news conference after the meeting, she said Somalia's only hope for peace is a political agreement that includes the country's diverse clans but excludes the extremists.
On the Net:
State Department on al-Qaida threat in Somalia: http://www.state.gov/p/af/rls/fs/2007/79383.htm