Somali Islamist claims he’s uniting insurgents
Militiamen loyal to Islamic Party leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys have been fighting side-by-side in recent weeks with al-Shabab, an extremist Islamist group considered by the U.S. State Department to be a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab denies that.
“Talks to unite al-Shabab and the Islamic Party are at an advanced stage,” Aweys told The Associated Press by telephone in his first interview since becoming the Islamic Party leader May 27.
“We are already in agreement over the issue of driving out foreign invaders and granting Somalis the right to choose,” their government,” said Aweys. He is also on a U.N. list of individuals with links to al-Qaida. Aweys has denied having such links.
Officials of al-Shabab were not immediately available for comment and it was impossible to verify his claim. But closer ties between the two groups could allow them to share resources such as arms supplies and troops, posing a more potent threat to the Western-backed government.
Aweys’s group, with the backing of hundreds of foreign fighters, supports a strict interpretation of Islam that have frightened many Somalis into submission with threats of stonings and other harsh punishments.
Aweys returned to Mogadishu in April, from self-imposed exile in Eritrea.
Diplomats have said insurgents in recent weeks have a received a major boost from as many as 400 foreigners who are believed to have come from as far as the battlefields of Afghanistan. Experts have expressed fears that the foreign Islamic militants could use Somalia as a base for terror in the region.
The insurgents launched a major offensive against the government last month and the government retaliated, with the battles claiming almost 200 civilians.
The U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday that 70,000 civilians have fled their homes in Mogadishu, with two thirds of them leaving the city altogether.
Residents in southwestern Mogadishu and a government official said that pro-government forces on Tuesday recaptured a police station close to Mogadishu’s main airport from Islamic insurgents and at least three people were killed in the six-hour long battle. It was not clear if the dead people were civilians or Islamic fighters.
Associated Press writer Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu contributed to this report.