BAIDOA, Somalia, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Somalia’s hardline Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab said on Tuesday it had introduced sharia law in Baidoa, a day after taking the town that had been a government stronghold and seat of parliament.
Fighters from al Shabaab, which is on Washington’s list of terrorist groups, captured Baidoa on Monday after the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops who had been supporting the government.
They quickly took the airport, parliament building and president’s home, and called locals to a meeting at a football stadium on Tuesday to explain how they would govern.
"We will not accept a government which is not working with sharia. We shall make changes in the town and will rule by Islamic law," al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Muktar Robow Mansoor told hundreds of people in the stadium.
Al Shabaab’s takeover of Baidoa has thrust it back into the spotlight in Somalia after it appeared to be losing support among the population because of hardline tactics, and had lost some territory to another, moderate Islamist group.
The town’s capture also poses a big practical problem to Somalia’s parliament, which is meeting this week in neighbouring Djibouti but obviously cannot return to Baidoa.
The government is now restricted to Mogadishu, but even there it faces near-daily attacks from the insurgents. Whether parliamentarians would agree to re-locate to the battle-scarred, half-empty, coastal city is unknown.
In Djibouti, the legislators have voted to expand parliament to bring in moderate Islamists in an attempt to form a unity government. They are also due to elect a new national president, under a U.N.-brokered plan to bring peace to the Horn of Africa nation for the first time in 18 years.
But al Shabaab has rejected the Djibouti talks.
APPEAL FOR CALM
Spokesman Mansoor urged Baidoa residents to stay calm, after looting of empty Ethiopian bases and widespread fighting on Monday, and vowed that the Islamists would provide security.
"Those who looted property of the government yesterday should return within two days or else they will be brought before an Islamic court," he said. "Any member of the government who is not fighting against us will not be harmed."
Al Shabaab’s presence in Baidoa, near the border with Ethiopia, will irk Addis Ababa, which this week ended a two-year military intervention in Somalia precisely to curb the Islamist threat. Ethiopia has kept a heavy troop presence on the border.
Local residents said al Shabaab fighters were moving round Baidoa on foot and on the back of pickups mounted with guns.
"We must welcome them, because we have no other choice," said shopkeeper Ismael Aden. "Now the town is calm and there is no looting. But we are afraid what happened in Kismayu might happen in Baidoa in the near future."
Al Shabaab took Kismayu port, in south Somalia, last year, and also introduced sharia law there. Residents say the group has made the town secure, but they complain of over-strict practices like executions and prohibition of watching films.
Should the Djibouti talks produce a unity government, its first challenge will be to handle the threat from Al Shabaab, either by bringing them on board or challenging them militarily. (Reporting by David Clarke in Djibouti, Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne)