NAIROBI, (Reuters) – Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed asked for more international help on Friday to battle hardline insurgents after holding what he called an historic meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton pledged strong support for Ahmed’s fragile administration following talks with him in Nairobi on Thursday, and she warned that Washington would take action against Eritrea if it did not stop supporting Somalia’s rebels.
Ahmed told Reuters the discussions showed the United States’ commitment to restoring peace in Somalia. But he said his government, which controls only parts of the capital Mogadishu, needed more help from overseas to beat the militants. “The Somali government alone can not bring a solution to the mayhem these groups are causing,” he said in an interview. “If we don’t confront them with the assistance of the world, the situation may turn into an uncontainable security threat.” Western security agencies say the Horn of Africa nation is a haven for extremists planning attacks in the region and beyond.
Australian police said this week they had uncovered a plot to attack a Sydney army base by men they said had links to al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia.
Ahmed said African nations wanted to help, but needed money from the West. He praised Burundi for sending a battalion of 850 soldiers last week, bringing the strength of an African Union peacekeeping force in the capital to more than 5,000. And he said foreign militants in al Shabaab’s ranks had imported a hardline version of Islam that most Somalis rejected.
“They are using religion as political tool, which we will not allow. Islam is a religion of peace and harmony. I cannot set a deadline for the liberation of Mogadishu, but we will free our people from these new-style gangsters,” he said. “We are working on reforming the security forces and using other civil structures that reject these foreign ideas, and I hope the (whole) capital will be under government control soon.” He appealed for Asmara to stop supporting the rebels: “Eritrea can change its approach and play a peaceful role instead of becoming a destabilising force in the region.”
Eritrea denies funding or arming Somalia’s militants, and an al Shabaab spokesman in Mogadishu said it would fight on. “We shall always make the U.S. plan for Somalia fail,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told reporters. “We shall fight with any forces they bring and we shall win in the end.”
Clinton said Washington saw Ahmed’s government as the best hope for some time for a return to stability. He was elected in January under a U.N.-brokered process that was Somalia’s 15th attempt to set up a central government since 1991.
Ahmed, a moderate Islamist cleric, shook hands with Clinton after Thursday’s joint news conference.
It was the first time the Somali leader had publicly shaken hands with a female diplomat — not a big deal for most Somalis, but a move that could open him up to even more criticism from his hardline Islamist insurgent foes. “The meeting was historic and a great chance for Somalia,” he said.
Speaking in Pretoria on the second leg of a seven-nation African tour, Clinton said Ahmed had asked for help providing medical services and materials for schools so his government could deliver basic services as they pushed back the rebels.
“Now, we are also going to work to ensure that government is democratic,” she said. “They have made certain comments about their desire to have elections within the next year or two, if they are able to do so within the security environment.”