Insurgents Briefly Capture Key Town in Show of Defiance

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 27, 2008

NAIROBI, March 26 -- Islamist insurgents battling for control of Somalia briefly seized a strategic town Wednesday, the latest sign of how feeble the country's internationally backed transitional government has become.

The takeover of Jowhar, about 55 miles north of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, was the most recent in a series of advances by a radical Islamist faction of a broader insurgency against the transitional government and the Ethiopian military that installed it more than a year ago.

In the past month, the faction -- known as al-Shabab and recently designated a terrorist organization by the United States -- has briefly asserted control of at least six towns in southern Somalia, a show of force underlining the fact that the Somali government has little control over the Horn of Africa nation.

"They go in and expel whatever rudimentary authorities are there, then go back to the bush and go to another unassuming village or town," said Abdirizak Adam Hassan, an adviser to Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf. "To my mind, they are saying: 'Although you defeated u s, we are still a formidable force. We are undiminished, and we are here to stay.' "

Since late 2006, when the Ethiopians intervened to oust an Islamist movement, the political and humanitarian crisis in Somalia has deteriorated.

On Tuesday, 40 aid groups delivered a statement to the U.N. Security Council, which is discussing Somalia this week, warning of an "impending humanitarian catastrophe."

An estimated 20,000 people a month are being chased from their homes by continued fighting, mostly in Mogadishu, which has lost half its population. In all, nearly 1 million Somalis are displaced, the statement says.

Somalia's national army, which began last year with about 20,000 troops, has dwindled to about 2,000, many of whom spend much of their time looting the homes and businesses of ordinary Somalis.

Soldiers who have not been paid in months are deserting, weapons in hand, and returning to their clans or joining the insurgency.

"It's a revolving door," Hassan said.

The situation has left the United Nations and foreign diplomats searching for ways to reach a settlement between the Somali government and a growing political opposition composed of Islamist leaders, intellectuals, businessmen and others united in their belief that Yusuf's Ethiopian backers must go.

"What is important in my mind is a new approach," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. secretary general's Somalia envoy. "We have abandoned Somalia for the last 15 years. This cannot last."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company