MOGADISHU Feb 21 (Reuters) - Ethiopian troops backed by tanks wrested
control of a town in southern Somalia on Tuesday from the al Qaeda-linked al
Shabaab, officials said.
Addis Ababa sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in November as part of a
wider campaign to crush al Shabaab rebels who control swathes of central and
Residents said Ethiopian tanks, supported by Somali government soldiers,
rolled into Yurkud town after a brief gunbattle with members of al Shabaab
who are fighting to topple the Western-backed government of the Horn of
Yurkud, a strategic town that links Bakool, Bay and Gedo regions of the
lawless country, is about 110 km (70 km) northwest of Baidoa, a stronghold
of the rebel group.
"We have captured Yurkud town, our objective is to secure Bay and Bakool
regions," Abdifatah Mohamed, a commander of the Somali government forces
told Reuters by phone from Yurkud.
"With the help of Ethiopian troops we are determined to oust al Shabaab.
They attacked us and we repulsed them. Now we have advanced from Yurkud,
Baidoa is now only 85 km away."
Al Shabaab confirmed the capture of Yurkud.
"Ethiopian troops are now at Yurkud after fierce fighting this morning. We
burnt two of their military lorries," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the
spokesman for al Shabaab's military operation told Reuters from a location
in southern Somalia.
"We attacked them this afternoon again - we shall continue fighting until we
oust Ethiopians from our country."
On New Year's Eve, Ethiopian troops captured the Somali border town of
Baladwayne from al Shabaab, who Kenyan troops have also been battling since
At the time, Ethiopia said it was willing to expand its operation beyond
Baladwayne if Somalia's government asked for backing.
Residents of Yarkud said they fled after the Ethiopian tanks approached
their town. "Most of the people have fled to Mogadishu or other remote
areas. I have nine children and aged parents," mother Safia Nur told Reuters
Ethiopia and Kenya sent troops into Somalia to fight al Shabaab following a
wave of cross-border attacks and kidnappings Nairobi blamed on the group.
Britain hopes to build on the modest security gains in Mogadishu and in
southern Somalia when it hosts a conference in London on Thursday.
Al Shabaab, which wants to impose its harsh interpretation of sharia, the
Islamic moral and legal code, relinquished control of the coastal capital of
Mogadishu in August, under pressure from the U.N. peacekeeping mission,
AMISOM, which is made up of Ugandan and Burundian troops.
The U.N. Security Council may vote this week to bolster AMISOM's numbers,
with Kenya hoping to integrate its forces.
AMISOM has been in Somalia since 2007 and confined to fighting al Shabaab in
Mogadishu . Having Kenya on board would mean it would spread its mandate to
"AMISOM now has the opportunity to contribute to a multi-front operation to
stabilise the situation in Somalia," the United States Special
Representative for Somalia, Ambassador James Swan, said in a statement.
"To this end, we support in principle an expansion of AMISOM's mandate and a
commensurate increase in its force levels, along with force enablers."
Somalia plunged into chaos in 1991 after dictator Siad Barre was toppled by
warlords. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by James Macharia;
Editing by Alison Williams)
* Private security guards, world navies take tougher stance
* Pirates get more violent, treat hostages worse
* Number of vessels taken down, but human, financial cost up
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
LONDON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - When tanker master Miro Alibasic takes one of his
company's vast ships across the Indian Ocean, he likes to have all the
firepower he can get on board.
Having seen last year how Somali pirates treat their captives, the
61-year-old is in no hurry to experience it again.
"It was hell on earth," he told Reuters by telephone from his home in the
Croatian port of Dubrovnik.
The number of ships seized in the region by Somali pirates fell last year,
industry data shows, but the overall number of attempted attacks continues
to rise and the raids have become increasingly violent.
Breaking the piracy "business model" and tackling Somalia's onshore problems
will be among the aims of a major international conference on Somalia in
London on Thursday. But few are optimistic of a solution any time soon, and
shippers say they must take matters into their own hands.
Greater use of private armed security guards on ships and a much tougher
approach by international navies is beginning to work, some mariners,
officials, contractors and military officers say. But others worry they may
simply fuelling a growing arms race, ramping up the conflict and producing a
rising human and financial cost.
In March last year, Alibasic was transporting a cargo of crude oil from
Sudan to Asia when his tanker - the 100,000 ton United Arab
Emirates-registered Zirku - came under attack. For 90 minutes, the pirates
poured heavy machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire into the vessel.
Then they were aboard, swarming over the two levels of barbed wire that
surrounded the decks.
The ferocity of the initial onslaught, he says, was matched by much of the
treatment suffered by him and his 28 crew during their 75 days in captivity.
As the shipowners negotiated the payment of an unspecified but reportedly
"massive" ransom, he did everything he could to keep the multinational crew
- including Jordanians, Egyptians, Ukrainians and Pakistanis - safe from
sometimes drugged and bored captors.
"I read them poetry and played them opera to try to calm them down," he
said, adding that he also played chess with the pirate leader "Abdallah" to
win his respect. "But they nearly hanged my second mate."
The unlucky second officer's only offence, he said, was to have demanded the
right to have a shower after spending hours working in the tanker's
sweltering engine room. By the time Alibasic persuaded the pirates to let
him go, the rope was already around his neck.
Seafarers' organisations say the treatment of prisoners has worsened over
time. Other sailors have been suspended hung upside down for hours, dumped
overboard or even keelhauled - dragged under the ship from one side to the
other on a rope, a traditional punishment of the age of sail barely reported
since the 17th or early 18th centuries.
Estimates suggest at least 60 seafarers have died.
TOUGHER NAVAL APPROACH
When the pirates forced Alibasic to sail back out into the Indian Ocean to
rescue some of their stranded colleagues, he found himself on the receiving
end of a new set of naval rules of engagement.
On one of his trips, his tanker came under fire from the U.S. Navy.
"I got on the radio and said: "What are you doing? They (the pirates) will
kill us all ... They were using us as human shields," he said.
About 25 warships from various nations now patrol the Indian Ocean at any
Some states - such as Russia - have always adopted an aggressive approach
when their ships were hijacked, storming them with force and either killing
the pirates or leaving them to die in open boats. The United States has also
launched special forces missions to rescue its nationals.
Other Western states - particularly the Europeans who make up the bulk of EU
and NATO-led task forces - were initially more cautious. But even they have
started to take a tougher stance, engaging pirate "motherships" and retaking
Many commanders have welcomed the new approach, saying it is behind the
slump in successful pirate attacks in the second half of 2011. Only 25 ships
were seized in 2011, the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR)
says, compared to 47 the year earlier.
Pirates now hold six ships and roughly 176 hostages, the EU says, again well
down from last year.
But average ransoms continue to rise - now about $5 million compared to $4
million last year.
Estimates of the cost to the global economy are also up - one report put it
at $7 billion in 2011.
The fastest growing component of that, the US-based Oceans Beyond Piracy
report said, was the cost of the rising number of armed private security
guards. At the beginning of 2011, they estimated perhaps a quarter of ships
carried such guards, rising to an estimated half now.
Shipping companies spent roughly $1 billion on private guards alone in 2011,
the report said - much more than the estimated $160 million earned by the
pirates themselves in ransoms.
SECURITY COSTS, WORRIES
Many piracy experts - including serving naval officers - believe it was the
private guards who made the real difference against piracy in 2011.
But the unregulated industry raises a host of new worries.
A 2011 UN report details one incident, in which naval forces rescued a
damaged skiff containing one dead Somali and six survivors, who said two
other compatriots had also been killed and had fallen overboard.
Naval observers concluded gunfire had come from illegally-held weapons on a
ship recently attacked by the skiff, but were unable to provide definitive
"It's very likely people are being killed out in the Indian Ocean by private
guards and it's not being reported," says Rory Lamrock, piracy analyst at
UK-based risk consultancy AKE.
A former military officer himself, tanker captain Alibasic worries over the
moral and legal implications of dispensing lethal force from the deck of a
civilian merchant ship.
But he also has a more immediate concern - will the guards he now carries on
his voyages through the region have enough arms and ammunition to fight off
the kind of concerted assault he faced last March?
As to solving the wider problem of Somali piracy, he says that is something
that will only happen when the world gets seriously involved onshore in the
pirate havens of Puntland and elsewhere.
"When we had a war in Croatia, we did not become pirates," he says,
referring to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. "The international community and
the UN came and things were sorted out in only a few years. That's what
needs to happen in Somalia." (Reporting By Peter Apps; Editing by Andrew
* Kenya's advance on rebel strongholds has stalled
* "Pacification" key, not speed of assault
* No timeframe for attack on Kismayu
By Richard Lough
TABDA, Somalia, Feb 20 (Reuters) - On the outskirts of Tabda, Kenyan gunners
hunkered down in trenches, scanning the distant scrub where Islamist
militants still roam more than four months after losing control of the town
in southern Somalia.
Tabda was one of a string of towns swiftly seized by Kenya in Somalia's arid
southern tip, after it sent troops across the border in October, blaming the
al Shabaab rebels for a spate of cross-border attacks.
Anticipated advances deeper into rebel-held territory, however, have not yet
materialised as the insurgents resort increasingly to guerilla tactics.
"Al Shabaab are still attacking us on average once a week," one Kenyan
rifleman who declined to be named told Reuters, peering over a pile of
sandbags to keep watch.
"They attack our camp from far, using rockets and mortars. We rarely see
them and attacks rarely last more than five minutes. They don't like
Kenya's commanders say their ground-attack troops and a campaign of
airstrikes have badly hurt the al Qaeda-backed insurgents in the area. They
point to al Shabaab's reliance on hit-and-run attacks by small gangs of
fighters as evidence their capabilities have diminished.
The Kenyan army says it now controls a strip of Somali territory running
along its porous frontier. Its most forward-stationed troops are positioned
40 km east of Tabda, beyond the town of Qoqani, more than 100 km inside
Rebel strongholds including Afmadow, which lies on a strategic trading
route, and the port city of Kismayu remain in their sights, senior officers
But they are reluctant to put a timeframe on when an assault on Kismayu, the
nerve-centre of al Shabaab's southern operations and traditional base of its
foreign fighters, might take place.
"Our mission remains to proceed up to Kismayu. Time is not important to us.
Most important is how best can we secure the areas we have vacated," said
Brigadier Johnson Ondieki.
Kenya's army calls it the "pacification" of areas surrendered by the
militants, winning Somali hearts and minds by maintaining security and
delivering limited aid to a part of the country that has lacked effective
government for two decades.
Any battle for Kismayu would likely be hard fought. Holding it would be even
tougher and some analysts say Kenya is stalling for time, perhaps waiting
for other countries to buy into the operation.
For now, Tabda residents are on side, hopeful the militants who hacked off
the hands of thieves, banned women from wearing bras and conscripted men
into their ranks will be defeated.
"The Kenyans brought us peace. They can stay until Somalia is stable," Tabda
elder Abduallahi Sheikh Ahmed said, speaking through a Kenyan military
A prolonged military presence, however, risks reversing popular support
among a nation that has traditionally resented foreign interference.
Kenya hopes to avoid that pitfall by integrating its forces into the African
Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which has been in Somalia since 2007 and
confined to fighting al Shabaab in the capital, Mogadishu. The U.N. Security
Council may vote this week to bolster AMISOM's numbers, paving the way for
the "re-hatting" of Kenya's troops.
Britain hopes to build on the modest security gains in Mogadishu, now almost
entirely under the control of AMISOM and the government, and in southern
Somalia when it hosts a conference in London on Feb. 23.
The lack of political progress in Somalia and fears that al Shabaab's
foreign fighters will strike in the West are major headaches for foreign
Returning from the frontline, Ahmed Madobe, who was once a senior Islamist
commander before he later allied his Ras Kamboni militia with the
U.N.-backed government, said stability in Somalia would come from the
grassroots, not international talks.
"Sometimes the international community takes fuel and adds it to the fire,"
said Madobe, who analysts expect will seek a leading role in the governing
of southern Somalia in return for fighting alongside Kenyan and Somali
government troops. (Editing by Peter Graff)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------
Received on Tue Feb 21 2012 - 17:54:50 EST