January 10, 2009 / 1:44 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-Islamic militants are main Somali threat -president

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 go, marginalising those hardline militants 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 the militant al Shabaab fighters seize power, but without help things will 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 Somali government forces alongside other Islamist groups. There are fears it could seize more ground when Ethiopia completes its withdrawal.

Madobe, who is Somalia’s parliament speaker and interim president since Abdullahi Yusuf quite 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," he added.



ELECTION ON TIME

The African Union 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, little progress has been made deploying them.

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.

He said so far two people had applied: Yusuf Azhari, a former envoy to Kenya and adviser to former president Abdullahi Yusuf, and Mohamed Deeq Abdimadar Barqadle from the diaspora.

Madobe said the TFG wanted to form a unity government with opposition groups, but if it was not in place by the deadline, the current parliament would select the president.

Yusuf, who was accused by the international community of being an obstacle to peace, quit as president on Dec. 29 after four years in power and returned to his native Puntland.

(Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Michael Roddy)




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