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January 30, 2012

Ethiopian, Somali Forces Set to Advance on Al-Shabab Stronghold

by Mohammed Yusuf

In Somalia, government forces backed by Ethiopian troops are set to advance on the Bay and Bakool regions, key strongholds of the militant group al-Shabab.  The Islamist group has vowed to resist any foreign intervention.

In Somalia's Gedo region, which borders Ethiopia, Somali government forces have played a defensive role for the last eight months.  But with the reported arrival of more Ethiopian troops, a Somali lawmaker tells VOA the forces are ready to secure the region and move forward to capture neighboring Bay and Bakool.

A Somali military official in the Gedo region, Diyed Abdi, says Somali forces hope to reduce the amount of territory al-Shabab controls.

“There is an ongoing operation to back up Transitional Federal Government plans to take control of other regions," he said.  "We would like to capture other town in Gedo and other regions with the help of Kenya, Ethiopia and AMISOM forces who are based in Mogadishu.”

A local official in the Gedo region town of Luq told VOA he could neither confirm nor deny the presence of Ethiopian troops in his town.  But witnesses said the troops arrived this week and remained in the Luq area as of Tuesday.

This latest development is not something new to Somalis; Ethiopian forces have often crossed into Somalia to pursue al-Shabab and militias said to be allied to an Ethiopian rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida, is fighting to overthrow Somalia's internationally recognized government.  The Islamist group controls much of southern and central Somalia, though it has lost ground in recent months.  AU and Somali forces took full control of Mogadishu earlier this month, while Ethiopian forces recently took control of Beledweyne in Somalia's Hiraan region.

Even though Somali forces have received enormous military support from neighboring countries the TFG struggles to regularly pay its troops.  Abdi said they haven’t received salary for six months but they will continue to fight without any condition.

“Our expectations are high, even though the TFG have not paid us, we are also people who are patriotic, and we want to fight for our land and our flag which they have replaced with the black flag of al-Qaida,” he said.

Al-Shabab rose to power by fighting government forces and pro-government Ethiopian troops who invaded Somalia in 2006.  The group considers any outside intervention as a threat to Somali sovereignty.

On Monday the militants permanently banned the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the few international aid agencies operating in areas under its control.  It accused the aid agency of providing contaminated food and betraying the trust of the population.

Earlier this month, ICRC temporarily suspended its operations in central and southern Somalia, saying local authorities had blocked deliveries of food and seeds.