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Pirate Ransom Helped Somalia Islamist Militants Seize Port

New details are emerging of a link between rising piracy off the coast of Somalia and insurgent activities on shore. A Kenyan piracy expert says a prominent Somali factional leader turned Islamist helped the country's militant Shabab group seize the key southern port of Kismayo last week with weapons he bought with ransom payments. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu has this exclusive story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

During the first half of this decade, factional leader Yusuf Mohamed Siad, better known by his nickname Inda'ade, was notorious in Somalia for engaging in pirate activities and running a lucrative drug and weapons trafficking operation from the city of Merca, the provincial capital of the Lower Shabelle region.

Inda'ade joined the country's Islamist movement in early 2006 and late that year he gained international attention when, as the chief of security for the ruling Islamic Courts Union, he urged foreign fighters to come to Somalia to carry out a holy war against troops from Ethiopia.

After Ethiopian troops ousted the Islamists from power, Inda'ade made his way to Asmara, Eritrea, where he joined the opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia group and cast himself as a hard-line spokesmen for the violent Islamist-led insurgency in Somalia.

The head of the Mombasa-based Seafarers' Assistance Program, Andrew Mwangura, tells VOA that Inda'ade is now the new Islamist leader in Kismayo.

"Inda'ade is a member of al-Shabab, the one who has taken over Kismayo and is the most powerful person," Mwangura said.

Kismayo, a strategic southern port city that had been under the control of local clan militias, fell to the radical Islamist Shabab group last Friday after days of fighting that killed more than 70 people.

Mwangura, whose group has been involved in securing the release of 90 percent of the vessels hijacked by Somali pirates in recent years, says Inda'ade still controls a personal militia of about 200 fighters and pirates, and is involved in the trafficking of drugs and guns.

Somalis say the factional leader has long wanted control of Kismayo and its port, and may have seen an opportunity to take the city through the Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliated organization that has successfully re-established Islamist control in many parts of southern and central Somalia in recent months.

Mwangura says Inda'ade expanded his relationship with other established pirate groups, particularly in the northern Puntland region, and used his share of the ransom money to buy, among other things, weapons used in the Islamist battle for Kismayo.

"So, they are working together. Now, they see one way of getting money for terrorist activities (is) through gun-running and drug trafficking," Mwangura said. "Or maybe al-Shabab is using him because he has fire-power and heavy military equipment."

Piracy has been rampant in Somalia since factional leaders overthrew the government of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and plunged the country into a civil war.

It reached unprecedented levels last week, when pirates seized three vessels in one day. Seven ships and their crew are being held with ransom demands exceeding $1 million for each vessel.