DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - Somali presidential candidates were seeking to persuade lawmakers meeting in Djibouti on Thursday that they can bring stability to a nation riven by feuding militias, rival Islamist insurgents and killing.
Somalia’s new parliament, including 200 moderate Islamist opponents, is to elect a president Friday in the hope a more inclusive administration with strong leadership can face the daunting challenges at home.
The world push for reconciliation comes at a critical time for Somalia because the departure of Ethiopian troops, who had been supporting the government, has exacerbated a violent power struggle between rival Islamist factions.
Washington fears Somalia may become a breeding ground for Islamist militants and destabilize the fragile Horn of Africa.
A moderate Sunni group captured a central trading town on Thursday from the hardline al Shabaab group that seized the seat of parliament in Baidoa this week and has vowed to impose its strict version of Islamic law throughout Somalia.
Fighters from government-allied Ahla Sunna Waljamaca attacked Dusamareb in the morning, ousting their rivals after several hours of gunfire and mortar exchanges, witnesses said.
“Dusamareb is now in our hands and we are still chasing al Shabaab in the outskirts of town,” Ahla Sunna spokesman Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters.
International players hope the election of a new president, taking place in neighboring Djibouti due to insecurity at home, could lead later to hardline opponents joining the government.
The 15 candidates have been lobbying parliamentarians informally, and each have 15 minutes to address parliament later Thursday. The two viewed as best placed are Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the moderate Islamist leader from the ARS.
Washington is backing Hussein, a quietly-spoken leader who won international kudos for standing his ground against former President Abdullahi Yusuf. He was viewed as an obstacle to peace and quit in December after threats of international sanctions.
Ahmed was chairman of the Islamic Courts Union that ruled Mogadishu in 2006 before America’s main regional ally, Ethiopia, ousted them to prevent an Islamist state taking root next door.
Before joining the government, Ahmed split with the hardline Islamist opposition. He has pledged to forge peace with Ethiopia and reach out to his former allies to try and end the violence.
But with al Shabaab in Baidoa, the government’s physical control is restricted to just some areas of Mogadishu, where they are being helped by a 3,500-strong African Union force.
The capture of Dusamareb was a blow to al Shabaab, which wants to take advantage of the Ethiopian departure to take over south and central Somalia. It still controls large swathes of the south and has generally been able to bring security there.
But its militant implementation of sharia law is unpopular, however, among many of Somalia’s traditionally moderate Muslims. They have chafed at practices like a ban on watching foreign films, public executions and other sharia punishments.
Terrified residents of Dusamareb fled to nearby woods during the fighting. “Mortars are now falling in the woods where we are as al Shabaab escapes toward our side,” Habiba Maalim told Reuters from the scene.
“Al Shabaab has taken more than 20 people out of their homes. We cannot tolerate their slaughters. We want to reopen our Koranic schools and save our people and graves from the omnivorous Al Shabaab,” said Ahla Sunna spokesman Yusuf.
Al Shabaab’s spokesman could not be immediately reached.