Somalia president accuses Eritrea of arming Islamists

sharif-ahmedMOGADISHU (AFP) — Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Wednesday accused Eritrea of arming hardline Islamists fighting to oust his government, a day after his own palace came under a barrage of mortar shells.

It was the first time he directly blamed the small African nation since the eruption early this month of some of the heaviest fighting against his four-months-old government.

“We know for sure that the majority of the weapons in the hands of the insurgents are coming from Eritrea,” he told reporters at his targeted residence.

“Eritrea is very much involved here… We know that Eritrean officers come here and bring money in cash.”

Sharif said that in the past the officers would send money via Nairobi or Dubai, but “now they come directly with cash.”

The hardline Islamists, believed to be propped up by hundreds of foreign jihadists, want to impose a stricter Sharia law in the lawless country.

Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke said there were up to 400 foreign fighters while Sharif said the majority of them are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We still understand that the influx of Al-Qaeda members continues and you can imagine how the situation will be if they take over,” said Sharif.

According to Sharif, Asmara’s intention in backing the radical Islamists was to create a base to train units to wage guerrilla war against its arch-foe Ethiopia.

“Since there is a war and tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritrea needs a place where Ethiopian opposition groups could be trained,” he said. Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been tense since a devastating border war in the late 1990s in which some 80,000 people died.

Eritrea was vehemently opposed to the deployment of Ethiopian troops in Somalia in late 2006.

Asked whether he backed a re-deployment of Ethiopian troops in the face of the renewed attacks, Sharif said “absolutely not.”

“We would like our country to remain independent,” he added.

Residents in a Somalia border town with Ethiopia recently said they saw Ethiopian troops there, but Sharif said authorities had discussed the matter “and they have agreed that Ethiopian troops will remain inside their border.”

The United States and African Union have accused Eritrea of fuelling the violence in Somalia, a charge Eritrea denies. African countries have called for the imposition of United Nations sanctions on Asmara.

Islamist fighters opposed to Sharif launched the latest onslaught on May 7, vowing to topple his Western-backed government.

More than 200 people have been killed and some 62,000 Mogadishu residents have fled the clashes in the past 20 days. Sharif has been holed up in his presidential compound under the protection of AU peacekeepers.

Islamists insurgents on Wednesday warned that prolonging the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia would only worsen the crisis, a day after the UN decided on extending its tenure.

“We clearly say that extending the mandate of the foreign forces means extending violence and hostility in the Muslim country of Somalia,” said Sheikh Ali Mohamoud, a spokesman for Shebab Islamists.

“To those deployed in Somalia, you are the ones that are trapped and dying here every day, but not those taking wines in New York. We warn you not to be here for the Mujahedeen fire.”

The AU mission, deployed in March 2007, counts more than 4,300 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers and is charged with protecting strategic sites in the capital such as the presidency, the port and the airport.

But it is not allowed to fight alongside government forces and is authorised to retaliate only in the case of a direct attack.

Sharif’s government, which has been confined to parts of the capital, took up power in January after a UN-sponsored reconciliation process.

The Shebab, a homegrown radical group whose leaders are suspected of links to Al-Qaeda, and the Hezb al-Islamiya armed group loyal to hardline opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys have been battling the government.

A country of around 10 million, Somalia has had no effective central authority since former president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, setting off a bloody cycle of clashes.