MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Islamic insurgents attacked a government checkpoint in Somalia’s capital on Saturday, sparking a gunbattle that killed at least five people on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Insurgents seeking to overthrow Somalia’s Western-backed government have been threatening to increase attacks during Ramadan, a monthlong period of prayer, reflection and sunrise-to-sunset fasts.
A minibus driver, Iidle Haasan, said he saw five corpses lying in the road after Saturday’s attack. The road where the attack started is the supply route for African Union peacekeepers.
“Early in the morning Islamist militias attacked our base,” Somali Defense Minister Yusuf Mohamed Siad told Associated Press Television News.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. The al-Shabab insurgent group, which has foreign fighters in its ranks, operates openly in the capital and seeks to overthrow the government and impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia.
Saturday’s violence follows a week in which more than 60 people were killed across the country as insurgents and government forces try to hold onto their territory.
Many experts fear the country’s lawlessness could provide a haven for Al Qaeda, offering a place for terrorists to train and gather strength, much like Afghanistan in the 1990s. The United States accuses al-Shabab of having ties to the terror network, which al-Shabab denies.
Attempts to stabilize the country have failed. Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, was elected president in January in hopes that he could unite the country’s feuding factions, but the violence has continued.
And as of June 30, the AU force in Mogadishu had 4,300 troops, from Uganda and Burundi, just 54 percent of its authorized strength of 8,000. Various Islamist groups have been fighting the U.N.-backed government since being chased from power 2 1/2 years ago. The situation is complicated by the continual splintering and reforming of alliances and a tangled web of clan loyalties.