Somali militants grow
MOGADISHU, SOMALIA - Somali militants linked to al-Qaeda briefly asserted control over Mogadishu's most strategic road Saturday, escalating their efforts to overthrow the U.S.-backed transitional government in a region where Islamic radicalism is gaining strength.
Never have the radical al-Shabab militiamen attacked so near Somalia's halls of power as they have last week, bringing them closer to their desire to create a Taliban-like Islamic emirate from which to export jihad abroad.
Saturday's attack triggered an intense gun battle on the Muka al-Mukarama, a vital artery that connects key government ministries and the presidential palace to the airport. The fighting sent hundreds fleeing their homes and trapped men like Mohammed Ali in the crosshairs of war.
The 22-year-old policeman fired a volley of bullets at al-Shabab fighters crouching in an alley connecting to the road. Bullets cracked back like thunderclaps. A mix of surprise and pain spread across Ali's boyish face, as blood oozed from his shattered foot, turning the road a dark crimson.
"We warned you not to fire your rifle," yelled a comrade, as others risked a similar fate to drag Ali to safety.
Next to them, soldiers and policemen stood against a wall of shuttered houses and stores that shielded them from the bullets whistling overhead. Scores of civilians who fled homes around the Dubka intersection huddled with them.
No one dared to go to the intersection, where al-Shabab fighters were firing on anyone attempting to cross the street.
"We are getting weaker and weaker every day," lamented Col. Ahmed Mohammed, a burly commander dressed in camouflage fatigues.
Many of the soldiers had received only one month's salary in the past eight months. For this, they would not risk their lives.
Over the past week, during Islam's holiest month of Ramadan, al-Shabab fighters have pressed on this ocean-side capital. The militia has grown increasingly ambitious since orchestrating last month's twin bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that killed more than 70 World Cup fans.
The militants have overtaken neighborhoods once controlled by the government. On Monday, they vowed an all-out war to eradicate the government and drive out a contingent of 6,000 African Union peacekeepers that protects it.
The next day, two al-Shabab suicide bombers attacked the Hotel Muna near the presidential palace, killing 31 people, including members of parliament and civil servants.