MOGADISHU Washington has sent weapons to Somalia's government after a green light from the U.N. Security Council to prevent rebels seen as a proxy for al Qaeda overrunning the Horn of Africa nation, sources said on Thursday.
When a moderate Islamist was elected president in January, there was hope he could end nearly two decades of bloodshed in Somalia by reconciling with hardliners who want to impose a strict version of Islamic law across the country.
But Osama bin Laden declared President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed an enemy in an audio tape released in March. He called on the insurgents to topple the government and for Muslims around the world to join their jihad.
The Washington Post said on Thursday arms and ammunition had been sent to the government in a move signaling that President Barack Obama's administration wanted to thwart the hardliners.
"It's confirmed. They received approval from the U.N. Security Council," an international security source said.
While there is a U.N. arms embargo on Somalia, the source said the Security Council had agreed to a waiver procedure for the new weapons and ammunition.
Another foreign security source said arms had come into Somalia for the government via Uganda, which provides half the 4,300 African Union troops protecting key sites in Mogadishu.
"The prospect of the government collapsing is sending alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, but whether this latest move will succeed remains to be seen," said Rashid Abdi, analyst at International Crisis Group.
"Going further than providing arms to actually sending in more foreign forces would be a mistake," he said. "The government would then play right into the hands of the militants, who would accuse them of accepting foreign meddling."
The al Shabaab group, which has foreign fighters in its ranks and is accused of close ties to al Qaeda, stepped up its attacks in early May. It now controls most of southern Somalia and all but a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu.
On Thursday, the insurgents used long knives to cut off a hand and a foot each from four young men in Mogadishu as punishment for theft, witnesses said.
It was the first double amputation in Somalia.
The men screamed in pain, and some spectators vomited.
Al Shabaab has carried out executions, floggings and single-limb amputations before, mainly in the southern port of Kismayu. Movies and soccer games are banned in areas it controls while men and women cannot travel together on public transport.
Al Shabaab's strict practices have shocked many Somalis, who are traditionally moderate Muslims, although residents give the insurgents credit for restoring order to regions they control.
"We have carried out this sentence under the Islamic religion and we will punish like this everyone who carries out these acts," said al Shabaab official Sheikh Ali Mohamud Fidow.
Security analysts and government officials say the rebels have been regularly supplied with weapons this year in spite of the U.N. arms embargo, while foreign fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nations have joined the battle.
Western governments and some of Somalia's neighbours fear that if the insurgents succeed in toppling the government, the country would then be used as a base to destabilise neighbors.
NO UNILATERAL ETHIOPIAN ACTION
The government has launched a series of attacks this month to drive the rebels out of Mogadishu. It has failed to make headway and is relying on African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi to protect the presidential palace, airport and seaport.
Somalia's security minister, the Mogadishu police chief, and a legislator have all been killed this month. The insurgents are using more suicide car bombers and security sources say its roadside bombs have become more sophisticated.
The government has declared a state of emergency.
The last time Islamists seized control of Mogadishu in 2006, neighboring Ethiopia intervened. Its troops drove them from the capital but instead sparked the insurgency that is still raging.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has not ruled out sending troops back to Somalia if the situation worsens, but said there were no plans for unilateral intervention for now.
He also told a news conference that he believed the government would be able to resist the onslaught from al Shabaab and allied group Hizbul Islam.
"We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where a so-called Ethiopian horse would be trying to take the chestnut out of the fire on behalf of everybody else," he told a news conference late on Wednesday.
"And this horse being whipped by every idiot and his grandmother."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, David Clarke and Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi; Tsegaye Tadesse and Barry Malone in Addis Ababa; William Maclean in London; writing by David Clarke; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alison Williams)