June 19, 2012
As Somali and allied forces continue to push al-Shabaab out of key strongholds in southern Somalia, local villagers say foreign fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda have been spotted in the Lower Shabelle region.
Foreign fighters were seen in the cities of Barawe and Marka, which are still under al-Shabaab control, according to local fisherman Adaawe Mataan.
Mataan told Sabahi that he saw a group of foreign fighters in recent days arriving at restaurants under heavy security protection. He said they used four-wheel drive vehicles and obscured their identities by wrapping their faces with turbans or covering them with black masks.
Estimates vary, but some sources say at least 500 foreign fighters are with al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The Somali army has pledged to hunt down members of al-Qaeda in Somalia and to work towards dismantling its plans to jeopardise the security of Somalia and neighbouring countries.
General Ali Araaye Osoble, chief of operations in the Somali army, told Sabahi that al-Qaeda members are looking for hideouts in the forests and farms of Lower Shabelle, and that Somali security forces are working non-stop to hunt them down using all means possible.
He called on the Somali people to co-operate with the armed forces to prevent al-Qaeda from carrying out any operation against religious and tribal leaders, security forces, government officials or the general population.
Lower Shabelle governor Abdiqadir Mohamed Nur said his administration will closely observe the movements of Somali and foreign fighters to bring them into custody and put them on trial.
"We will continuously pursue these [rogue] elements through raids and security sweeps after we take over the province's towns and villages where rebels still freely move, taking advantage of the open coastal areas," he told Sabahi.
Intelligence indicates that al-Shabaab members passed through the village of Kuunya-Baroow and stayed there for three days, he said, adding that a security operation will bring into custody tribesmen suspected of providing safe havens and shelter for the fighters.
An al-Shabaab commander confirmed the presence of well-known, senior foreign figures affiliated with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab in Lower Shabelle. He said many fighters have been fleeing to Yemen as joint Somali and African Union forces advance into the region.
The commander, who asked not to be named, told Sabahi that around 80 Arab and Western fighters have fled to Yemen from Kismayo over the past two months using small, Yemeni-made boats.
Upon arrival to Yemen, the fighters joined the ranks of Ansar al-Sharia, a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that is fighting the Yemeni army.
The commander said Somalis and foreigners have been seen living in cities in eastern and southern parts of Yemen.
In March, the Yemeni Ministry of Interior accused the al-Shabaab movement of sending about 300 fighters to fight alongside al-Qaeda against the Yemeni army and security forces.
In the same month, the Ministry of Interior said its security services captured four Somalis suspected of belonging to al-Shabaab along the road linking Lahj and Abyan provinces.
The Yemeni Ministry of Defence confirmed on June 18th that a Somali national detonated his explosives vest, killing General Salem Ali Qoton, the commander spearheading Yemen's efforts to defeat al-Qaeda in the country's southern provinces.
Fatima Sheikh Abdilatif, 25, said she escaped from al-Shabaab after government forces took over the town of Afgoye last month. She said she used to work for the movement, cooking their food and hand-washing their clothes.
"After realising that the group was in dire straits and that its future was unknown, I decided to escape from their camp in Elasha Biyaha and to take refuge in the secure areas," she said. "I now wear a niqab to hide my identity."
Abdilatif said dozens of foreign fighters would come weekly to have their clothes cleaned and to attend sermons at mosques and in large public spaces near areas housing internally displaced persons outside the capital. The Somali Transitional Federal Government and African Union forces took control of Mogadishu in March.
Abdilatif said some of the fighters married Somali women and had children with them.
Somali and African Union forces took control of Afgoye on May 25th in a large-scale attack to cleanse the area of al-Qaeda and their Somali supporters who had controlled the town for nearly four years.
Al-Shabaab was forced to withdraw from its strongholds in Afgoye and Afmadow in the face of advancing Somali troops and African Union peacekeeping forces.
Although al-Shabaab still controls large parts of central and southern Somalia, it faces ground and air attacks from the Kenya Defence Forces, which now operate under the umbrella of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Al-Shabaab has threatened retaliation for its losses.
AMISOM General Ugadi Kiki said the next offensive will seize the city of Balad.
"After securing the Afgoye corridor, crowded with internally displaced persons, we are setting up another major attack against the militants remaining in Lower Shabelle region," Kiki said at a news conference on June 8th.
"We are on the verge of staging another attack against al-Shabaab militants because our plan is to support efforts to liberate areas along the Shabelle River," he said.
General Abdullahi Ali Aanood, commander of the first regiment of the Somali army, told Sabahi that the army, with the support of AMISOM, is prepared to stage the attack against al-Shabaab in Balad from two fronts. He said joint forces are approaching the town via the main road connecting it with Mogadishu, as well as another road that runs through a farming area in Afgoye.
Aanood said his forces would soon liberate all towns in Middle Shabelle, thus ending al-Shabaab's reign in the area, as well as areas in the Hiran region.
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