INTERVIEW-Somalia's hardline Islamists 'biggest threat'

Sat Jan 10, 2009 1:28pm EST


(Adds AU statement, election date)

By Abdiaziz Hassan

NAIROBI, Jan 10 (Reuters) - A group of hardline Islamist fighters on Washington's list of foreign terrorists poses the biggest threat to Somalia and the government needs more support to avoid a crisis, its interim president told Reuters.

Islamist insurgents control much of southern and central Somalia and the government holds only the capital Mogadishu and the seat of parliament, Baidoa. Some 3,000 troops from Ethiopia are withdrawing after propping up the government for two years.

Western diplomats hope the insurgency will fracture when the Ethiopian soldiers finally go, and marginalise the hardline al Shabaab fighters who are imposing a strict version of Islamic law traditionally shunned by Somalis.

Speaking on Saturday in Nairobi, Somali President Sheikh Aden Madobe said the government and moderate Muslim scholars would never let al Shabaab seize power, but without help things could get worse for the Horn of Africa nation.

"Al Shabaab is supported by enemies of peace and doing something that is not Islam. Islam is a religion of peace and stability. It is not a terrorism religion, and al Shabaab is Somalia's biggest threat," Madobe said.

The hardline rebel group Hareka al Shabaab al Mujahideen, or the Mujahideen Youth Movement, is fighting Ethiopian and Somali government forces alongside other Islamist groups.

The completion of Ethiopia's pullout could help al Shabaab seize more ground, unless more moderate Islamists turn against them. The United States fears a takeover by al Shabaab and other Islamist militants it sees as linked to al Qaeda.

Madobe, who is Somalia's parliament speaker and interim president since Abdullahi Yusuf quit last month, said Somalia needed more money to build up its security forces.

"Ethiopia has decided to leave and insists on that, and we have not succeeded in forming the troops supposed to take over," he said. "Somalia is tired of chaos."



ELECTION DATE SET

The African Union said in a statement after a summit in Addis Ababa on Saturday that the international community needed to redouble commitments to help get a 10,000-strong Somali force of government and opposition soldiers up and running to support the political process.

The AU has been desperately trying to beef up its existing force of some 3,500 troops from Uganda and Burundi. But despite pledges of extra battalions from those two nations and Nigeria, they have yet to deploy.

Analysts say unless the African Union force is strengthened soon there is a risk those peacekeepers will pull out as well, leaving even more of a security vacuum.

"The survival of this government depends on how its leadership works together, how the Somali people assist it in its task and how the international community supports it," Madobe said, before flying back to Baidoa.

He said the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) would respect the 30-day deadline in a transitional federal charter for selecting a new president.

The AU statement issued later on Saturday said the TFG and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia had agreed to hold the election process in Djibouti from Jan. 20-26.

The African Union also said "significant progress" had been made on expanding the parliament to include opposition groups.

Madobe said so far two people had applied for president: Yusuf Azhari, a former envoy to Kenya and adviser to former president Abdullahi Yusuf, and Mohamed Deeq Abdimadar Barqadle, a member of the Somali diaspora who has been living in Sweden. (Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)




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