In a fresh sign that militant Muslim fighters in Somalia have adopted tactics used by the al-Qaida terror network, Somalia's radical Islamist Shabab group has beheaded three government soldiers guarding a road northwest of the capital Mogadishu. It is the first case of beheadings in the country since an Islamist-led insurgency against Somalia's Ethiopian-backed interim government began more than a year ago and comes amid a new initiative by the interim prime minister to engage opposition groups in peace talks with the government. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Shabab fighters, armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, ambushed a government checkpoint Thursday near Lego, a village on the road that links the capital Mogadishu with the seat of Somalia's transitional parliament in Baidoa and continues on to Ethiopia.
The chief administrator of Lego, Abukar Abdullahi Sheik Isaq, tells VOA that shocked residents later discovered that three of the government soldiers killed in the firefight had been beheaded.
The administrator says residents were horrified when they saw the soldiers' headless bodies. He says most Somalis believe that beheading people is inhuman, immoral and against the spirit of Islam.
In a telephone interview with VOA from an undisclosed location, the spokesman of the Shabab and one of its senior commanders, Sheik Muktar Robow, said Shabab fighters beheaded the soldiers because Somali security forces ignored a warning to stop guarding the road, which is used by Ethiopian troops to ferry troops and supplies into Somalia.
Robow says his group will not hesitate to behead more soldiers, if they do not dismantle all checkpoints and leave the area.
The radical Shabab group, which was founded in Mogadishu four years ago by an Afghanistan-trained Somali militant, is believed to have gained thousands of new recruits since Ethiopia, with U.S. support, led a military campaign in late 2006 to topple Somalia's Islamic Courts Union. A U.N.-recognized secular interim government was installed in its place, and Ethiopian troops remained in Somalia to protect the government from a fierce Islamist-led insurgency.
Last week, Ethiopia's close ally and president of the interim government, Abdullahi Yusuf, accused the al-Qaida terror network of sending foreign fighters trained in Afghanistan to train and support Shabab fighters in Somalia.
Hinting that the allegation may have merit, Muktar Robow accused the Somali leader of being hypocritical for welcoming foreign troops to Somalia, but not foreign fighters.
The Shabab commander said, "Abdullahi Yusuf is allowing soldiers trained in Ethiopia to operate in Somalia. What would be the difference if those trained in Afghanistan stay here with us?"
On Wednesday, Somalia's interim Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein announced that the government is ready to negotiate with any and all opponents and opposition groups to end the country's 15-month-old insurgency and begin the process of national reconciliation.
It is still not clear whether that means the government is also extending an olive branch to the Shabab. President Yusuf has repeatedly said he will never negotiate with any group that has ties to terror organizations.