/ 27 March 2008

Somali Islamists plot more hit-and-run raids

Somalia’s Islamist insurgents vowed on Thursday to launch more hit-and-run attacks against the government, saying their tactics were designed to reduce civilian casualties.

Islamist fighters briefly seized the town of Jowhar, north of Mogadishu, on Wednesday, highlighting the interim government’s inability to assert its authority despite support from Ethiopian and African Union troops.

The raid on Jowhar, which served as the administration’s temporary base in 2005, killed seven people and came after the rebels briefly took control of four smaller towns.

A spokesperson for the Islamists said the fighters would continue the hit-and-run attacks, but would not draw Ethiopian soldiers into urban battles to avoid greater loss of life.

”We are capable of holding the areas we capture,” said Mohamud Ibrahim Suley of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council, which the Western-backed government kicked out of Mogadishu following a short war at the end of 2006.

”But we always want fewer losses … we want no harm to come to the civilian population,” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. ”Until the people become fully independent … the fighting will never stop.”

In recent months the insurgents have seized towns from local administrations that often amount to little more than militias, only to give them up and melt away — or be routed by Ethiopian or Somali government forces who arrive later.

Forty humanitarian agencies urged the world this week to focus on the ”catastrophic” situation in the Horn of Africa country, where hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from war, drought and food shortages.

The crisis has been worsened by a 15-month Islamist insurgency of Iraq-style roadside bombings and assassinations that killed more than 6 500 people in Mogadishu last year alone.

The United States has formally listed the military wing of the courts council — the al-Shabaab — as a foreign terrorist organisation and says it is closely affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Mohamed Omar Dele, chairperson of Somalia’s Middle Shabelle region, said the assault on Jowhar took place while he and most of the town’s soldiers were on security operations elsewhere.

”The terrorists looted all they could and freed all the prisoners from the jails. They even let local people ransack government offices,” he said from Jowhar, which was once controlled by Mogadishu’s mayor, former warlord Mohamed Dheere.

”Our forces will not give up until we capture them.” — Reuters