MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Rebels suspected of links to al Qaeda seized a Somali town near the Kenyan border on Saturday, sending civilians fleeing towards the neighbouring country.
Al Shabaab insurgents, who Washington says are a proxy in Somalia for Osama bin Laden’s group, drove into the town of Dhobley after rival insurgents, Hizbul Islam, fled.
“I see a lot of battle wagons and heavily-armed militia. They came into the town a few minutes ago and they have captured the police station … without any fighting,” said Dhobley resident Nor Yusuf Ali by telephone.
Together, the two rebel groups have been fighting the Western-backed government in the capital Mogadishu, but a battle for control of the lucrative southern port of Kismayu has pitted the former allies against each other.
Violence has plagued Somalia since 1991 and about 19,000 civilians have been killed since the start of 2007 when Islamists launched an insurgency to topple the government.
Western nations and neighbouring countries fear regions under al Shabaab’s control are a haven for militants hoping to launch attacks in developed countries or destabilise the region. “We got Dhobley without any war against us. Now it is under the control of the mujahideen. We will continue our fight against the infidels till we eradicate them from the region,” an al Shabaab official told Reuters by telephone from Dhobley.
A senior official of the group said in June the insurgents might “invade” Kenya unless it reduced troop numbers along the border near places such as Dhobley.
Kenya shut its border with Somalia in January 2007. However, thousands of Somalis still cross the porous desert frontier to reach overflowing refugee camps in Kenya, often by bribing police along the way. “The border is totally closed but people are trying to enter the refugee camps. Kenya has deployed more troops on the border,” an aid agency official in Dhobley, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
The rebels have brought a semblance of stability to areas they control but their harsh practices have alienated many traditionally moderate Muslims in the failed state.
“We don’t know where we are going to. I and my six young children fled from Dhobley. We have left behind everything We had, our houses and belongings,” said Qadra Jamac as she headed to Kenya with her children late last week. “The border is very hard to enter but we will try our luck.”
The group’s aim is to impose its own strict version of sharia — Islamic law — throughout Somalia. It has banned music, sport, videos, and shaving. They desecrate graves, behead rival clerics and publicly stone to death women accused of adultery.
Al Shabaab appealed to Dhobley residents to stay put, saying they would bring order to the town a few kilometres from Kenya, but some residents left anyway, fearing more violence. “They are rumours saying the Hizbul Islam militia is near the town … that is why we are fleeing to the neighbouring refugee camps,” said 54-year-old Abdi Omar. “We don’t know where to stay.”