Rival group agrees to back Somalia's Shabaab rebels

Wed Dec 22, 2010 2:04pm GMT

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels tightened their grip on the south of the country on Wednesday when their main Islamist rivals said they had agreed to join them to fight the government.

Al Shabaab fighters had already seized much of the territory held by the rival group, Hizbul Islam, in fighting in recent weeks. Residents in the area south of the capital said Hizbul Islam's last strongholds had been under siege by al Shabaab for days when its leadership agreed to merge with the larger group.

"Hizbul Islam has completely joined al Shabaab," Hizbul Islam spokesman Mohamed Osman Arus said.

"This does not mean we were captured," he said. "We always had a common goal and now the objective is to increase our efforts to oust the so-called Somali government and its foreign allies."

The combined rebels control most of central and south Somalia as well as much of the capital, hemming Western-backed President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's beleaguered government into just a few blocks in Mogadishu.

While Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab have often fought together against the government in Mogadishu, they were rivals in other parts of the country, including the southern port of Kismayu, which was eventually seized by al Shabaab.

Hizbul Islam was seen by many Somalis as less severe in its interpretation of Islam than al Shabaab. Its leader, Hasan Dahir Aweys, had criticised Al Shabaab for supporting Osama bin Laden.

The African Union, which maintains an 8,000-strong force of Ugandan and Burundian troops supporting the Somali government, said the merger of the rebel groups could lead to more violence.   Continued...

<p>Militants of al Shabaab display their weapons on the outskirts of Mogadishu, December 8, 2008. REUTERS/Feisal Omar</p>
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