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Somali Insurgents Amputate Suspected Thieves' Limbs

In Somalia's capital, the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia amputated a hand and a foot each from four young men accused of stealing guns and mobile phones. The militia has imposed a harsh brand of Islamic law in areas of Somalia under its control.

In front of a crowd of hundreds at an al-Shabab camp in the north of Mogadishu, militiamen cut off the right hand and left foot of the four suspected thieves. According to witnesses, those executing the punishment wore hoods and used a machete, and the suspects, at least some of them thought to be teenagers, were crying. The men had been convicted earlier in the week by a court set up by al-Shabab.

An al-Shabab leader, Ali Mohamed Hussein, spoke at the scene of the punishment.

"The four men had already been sentenced," he said. "Each had his right hand and left foot cut off. We are implementing sharia law. We sentenced these men after confirming that they robbed people in Mogadishu."

The human rights group Amnesty International condemned the amputations, saying they amounted to torture. The group had also criticized the lack of due process given the suspects.

Al-Shabab is on the United States government's list of terrorist organizations, suspected of having ties to al-Qaida. As many as 300 foreigners are believed to be fighting alongside the militia in its effort to wrest control of Mogadishu from the internationally-backed transitional government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The group already controls parts of the capital, and much of the country's south.

While public opinion can be hard to gauge in areas controlled by al-Shabab, many observers believe that Somalis welcome the insurgents' ability to impose order in the famously lawless country, but do not support such harsh punishment, noting that most Somalis practice a moderate brand of Islam.

The transitional government has officially introduced Sharia law in the country, but the insurgents have rejected the effort as too weak. Al-Shabab, meanwhile, has imposed a its own brand of Islamic law in areas it controls, particularly the port city of Kismayo, where there have been reports of amputations, flogging, and stoning.

Since Islamist insurgents launched a renewed offensive in Mogadishu in early May, nearly 160,000 people have been displaced, and over 200 have been killed. Both Somalia's internal security minister and the chief of police for Mogadishu were killed last week.

Somalia's government has appealed to neighboring countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya to intervene, but both have so far resisted the appeal. Ethiopian troops occupied the country from the end of 2006 until this past January, but withdrew when President Ahmed's faction of the opposition joined the government and he was selected as president.

Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991.