Deserters from Somali insurgency find little help

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 11:32 AM

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somalia's government promised fighters like Abdi Hassan valuable rewards if they deserted from the Islamist rebels group battling for control of the country. Good salaries. Education. Health care.

Encouraged by a steady broadcast of radio messages and wearied by the war, Hassan snuck away last November. But when he arrived in the government-controlled area of Mogadishu, he found that little had been done for deserters like himself.

Now the skinny, bearded former rebel spends his days lounging, too afraid go outside in case his al-Qaida linked former colleagues try to kill him.

Hassan's situation - along with another 50 men like him - may illustrate why there are so few defections from an insurgency with little popular support. It also underscores one key reason that Somalia's 20-year civil war continues to drag on: The weak government and its disorganized supporters have failed to present a credible alternative.

Somali Defense Minister Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiqi said the government was providing defectors with food, accommodation and education, although he declined to provide figures. The deserters are given religious lessons and taught a few basic social skills, but appear not to be learning hard skills that can translate into a new job.

"We are planning to get salaries for them and we are encouraging those still with the terrorists to leave by March 30," Fiqi said. He declined to say what would happen after the end of March.

The Somali government and its international backers are eager to encourage defectors, but there are few structures in place to support them. Hassan said he and others are being housed and fed by the Somali intelligence services, but their promised payments have been small and sporadic.

"Our main worries are being worse off and the lack of jobs. If we weren't so afraid we could go to town and look for jobs," said the 24-year-old Hassan, who said he had been lightly wounded six times and seen many friends die around him while fighting with the insurgents.

Hassan said he joined al-Shabab because the militants claimed they were the "real" Muslims, but he said he later realized that claim was false.

The group has instituted a Taliban-style system of rule, with strict edicts enforced by their own courts and public executions.

Hassan's friend Nur Afrah, also a deserter, said many more young men are willing to leave al-Shabab, the biggest threat to the weak U.N.-backed Somali government and an 8,000 strong African Union force supporting them.

An offensive begun last month by the AU soldiers and the government has pushed the insurgents out of several key positions in the capital.

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