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Deserters from Somali insurgency find little help

By ABDI GULED
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.

"Al-Shabab are the worst people to work with. It's all no salary and daily fighting," said Afrah.

He pulled up his pant legs to show an Associated Press reporter shrapnel wounds on both of his legs. He said after he was wounded, he was given a week's rest before being told he would have to return to the front.

Hassan agreed conditions with al-Shabab were bad.

"We used to use small guns but bigger and modern ones are being used against us. We suffered a lot," he said, showing a photograph on his phone of a friend he said was killed.

Both men said payments from al-Shabab were small and irregular but they were bitter that the government had not delivered on its promises, either.

Hassan said he had received $100 from the government the month he deserted, then two further payments of $100 each over the next four months. That's better than the $280 per year al-Shabab offered him, but not enough to properly support his wife and baby son.

Successive Somali governments, hobbled by corruption and incompetence, have struggled to pay their own soldiers the stipulated $100 a month, let alone deserters. Payments were suspended for most of last year after donors Italy and the U.S. insisted on accurate lists of soldiers to try to help prevent wages being stolen. The payments restarted in December.

Currently there is no international financial support for a disarmament program, partly because donors fear the costs of a successful program could mushroom out of control and partly because successful disarmament is difficult. There have been several attacks by men posing as al-Shabab deserters, most notably the assassination of a senior police officer last year.

"People smile at us but they don't trust us," Hassan said sadly.

International donors are trying to hammer out a plan to support former fighters, but progress is slow, said Augustine Mahiga, the U.N.'s special representative for Somalia. He described sitting in a room full of high-level international officials during a two-hour meeting that didn't appear to achieve any consensus on moving forward.

If the money paid in salary to the international participants in the room could have been collected and applied to the Somali deserters, then all the former fighters could be paid what they are owed, Mahiga said.

In the meantime, Hassan and Afrah sit around drinking tea, complaining and chewing qat, a mildly narcotic leaf widely used in Somalia. They say the government must do better, but that there is no way they will return to the insurgency.

"If I return to the militants, I will surely be executed," Hassan said. "We support the government, but we have to think of our own future too."

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Associated Press Writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Associated Press