From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Wed Nov 12 2008 - 06:05:27 EST
Somalia's al Shabaab seize port near capital
Wed 12 Nov 2008, 9:40 GMT
By Mohamed Ibrahim
MOGADISHU, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Somalia's militant Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab captured a port near the capital on Wednesday without firing a shot.
Residents said fighters for al Shabaab, which means "Youth" in Arabic, rode into Merka port, 90 km (56 miles) south-west of Mogadishu, the morning after government-aligned militia left overnight in anticipation of the incursion.
Merka is now the closest town to Mogadishu held by al Shabaab and is the most significant territorial gain by the insurgents since they took Kismayu port further south earlier this year.
Al Shabaab is on Washington's list of terrorist organisations and has rejected a tentative, U.N.-brokered peace agreement between the Western-backed Somali government and moderate Islamists to try to end 17 years of conflict.
Inhabitants said the fighters came into Merka on pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns, known locally as "technicals".
"We saw them coming in. They went directly to the police station," one resident, Mustaf Hasan, told Reuters by telephone from Merka. "Now they are passing along the main street. There were no skirmishses. The militia left overnight."
In the early stages of their two-year insurgency, the Islamists tended to take towns briefly before moving out again in a show of strength. But this year, they have been taking and holding territory, and now control most of south Somalia.
They have also been staging regular attacks in Mogadishu.
Analysts see al Shabaab as unlikely to mount an assault on Mogadishu immediately, given disunity within the Islamist ranks -- moderates are increasingly unhappy with al Shabaab's tactics -- and the presence of Ethiopian troops backing the government.
It was combined Ethiopian-Somali troops who kicked the Islamists out of Mogadishu at the end of 2006, after a brief six-month rule, ushering in the insurgency.
Ethiopia was due to start withdrawing its soldiers from Mogadishu later this month under the peace plan, but al Shabaab's presence so close may force a re-think, analysts say.
"They've timed this perfectly to unsettle the whole peace process just when it was gaining a bit of momentum," a Nairobi-based Somalia expert said. (Reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Louise Ireland and David Clarke)
© Reuters 2008. All Rights Reserved.
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