Al-Shabab militiamen: Local observers say the militia group has yet to gain popularity among locals
NAIROBI, 19 May 2009 (IRIN) - Somalia's Al-Shabab militia have recently captured several strategic towns near Mogadishu, but the group has yet to gain popularity among locals, observers said. The onslaught has sent thousands of displaced civilians on the run again and crippled aid operations in the southern regions. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 40,000 people have been displaced since fighting intensified on 7 May. Other aid workers say at least 150 people have been killed and more than 400 injured. "The capture of Jowhar goes to the heart of the problem in Somalia and demonstrates that indeed the government in Mogadishu is by and large extremely weak," Timothy Othieno, an analyst at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, told IRIN. "The government needs to engage with the people who matter, including hardliners, who include Al-Shabab," he added. Al-Shabab has continued to expand its control of southern and central Somalia and captured Jowhar, 90km north of Mogadishu, on 17 May. According to a political observer in the capital, however, the capture of Jowhar may be a sign that Al-Shabab has peaked. "In my opinion this is as far they will reach," he said. "They have entered hostile territory, where they are less popular than even the Ethiopians [troops] were." The Ethiopian soldiers were invited by the Transitional Federal Government in December 2006 to help oust the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Pointing to the recent defection of prominent opposition figure Sheikh Yusuf “Indha Cadde” to the government side, which he described as a boost, the observer said Mogadishu's apparent weakness "may in fact work to the benefit of the government by galvanising supporters to take the offensive". Separately, a regional analyst, who requested anonymity, said: "The fall of Jowhar is less a sign of Al-Shabab's strength than the government's apparent disarray and paralysis. "Either the opposition will maintain the initiative, fatally eroding the government's authority and cohesion; or the crisis will provoke a determined and unified reaction from the government." Al-Shabab is a militant Islamist group that was part of the UIC and gained prominence during the Ethiopian military presence.
Farhan Ali Mahamud, the Minister of Information, told IRIN the government promoted reconciliation and would pursue dialogue. "We will not undertake any action that will add to the suffering of our people," he said. "Their [Al-Shabab’s] actions have led to the population rallying around the government. Elders, religious leaders and ordinary people are coming forward to defend their government," he added. The current fighting has had a devastating impact on the population and the fall of Jowhar will make it even more difficult to access those needing assistance, aid workers said. "For those who depend on them [aid workers] it means no help for now," one Somali civil society leader said.