NAIROBI, Dec 16 (Reuters) - The military wing of Somalia’s Islamist movement plans to intensify its offensive against government troops and their Ethiopian allies, a senior commander said on Sunday.
In his first comments to Reuters since going into hiding a year ago, Muktar Ali Robow said al-Shabab had killed nearly 500 Ethiopian soldiers and would fight until foreign troops left the Horn of Africa country.
"We are now planning to launch the most enormous attacks on the government and Ethiopian main positions. We will allow no foreign forces in our land," Robow said in a phone interview.
"In the past days the infidel troops of Ethiopians along with their puppets and al-Shawab al-Mujahideen have fought heavily in Mogadishu. We have raided the enemies’ military bases showering them with mortar shells," he said, referring to his "Movement of Young Mujahideen" faction.
Robow did not give away his location, but said he was in the southern Bay province of Somalia.
Also known as "Abu Mansoor", Robow was the Islamic Courts’ deputy defence secretary before the movement that ruled Mogadishu and most of south Somalia for six months was ousted by allied Somali-Ethiopian forces in the New Year.
His al-Shabab has since spearheaded an Iraq-style insurgency, waging near-daily roadside bombings, grenade attacks and shootings against government and Ethiopian positions.
The conflict has killed 6,000 civilians this year, according to a local human rights group, and forced hundreds of thousands to abandon their homes and livelihoods in what the United Nations calls Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Robow said Somalis backed the insurgency and denied reports his fighters were shelling Mogadishu’s main Bakara market.
"We are financially and morally supported by the population," he said. "We have the people’s allegiance. We would never shell Bakara. But the Ethiopians know that the market is the main source of revenue for the Somali people. They needed justifications to destroy that source."
Robow also dismissed reports al-Shabab had recruited boy soldiers to fight. "It is not Islamic, even our prophet, Mohamed ... did not send youngsters to jihad. We do not arm children with bombs or grenades to go into a war."
Robow dismissed as "lies" a report by Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu that 75 al-Shabab fighters were killed in a surprise attack on their secret hideout this week.
He urged new Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein to quit and said his group’s intention was to rule Somalia by sharia law.
"When we force Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from our country, its traitors will follow and the people will be able to embrace an Islamic government," he said.
"Democracy is not right. They call it democracy when a man marries another man and a woman marries another woman. How can such things be allowed to happen?"
The Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had run widely despised warlords, who enjoyed U.S. backing, out of Mogadishu in June 2006 with decisive victories.
Many Somalis credited Robow’s SICC with bringing a semblance of order to the capital Mogadishu. But its attempts to enforce strict sharia law in the moderate Muslim country drew rumblings of discontent after they banned Bollywood films and khat, a mild narcotic leaf chewed throughout the Horn.
Somalia has been plagued by anarchy since warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The interim government’s efforts to restore central rule have largely been paralysed by infighting and the Islamist-led insurgency. (Editing by Katie Nguyen)