* Move could be boost for al Shabaab
* Group wants to entrench strict sharia rule
* Weak central government relies on army
* Only non-registered soldiers not paid-PM
By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar
MOGADISHU, March 20 (Reuters) - Somali soldiers have vacated at least three of their bases in protest over months of missed pay, a military officer and residents said on Wednesday, in what could be a boost for Islamist al Shabaab insurgents.
The Horn of Africa nation’s weak central government relies on the support of the military and African Union-mandated AMISOM peacekeepers against al Shabaab, which aims to carve out a realm based on strict sharia (Islamic law).
The vacated bases are in Somalia’s Middle Shabelle region, one of the troops’ commanders Col. Abdi Mohamed Ahmed told Reuters, adding that the move was to protest about non payment of salaries for four months.
“The military soldiers here have not taken salaries for four months. We are now on (the) way to Mogadishu,” Ahmed said.
“It is painful to be in the frontline and fighting al Shabaab while your wife and kids are starving.”
Ahmed added he understood troops were also deserting more bases but that some of those garrisons had not been completely abandoned because some Somali troops and others from peacekeeping force AMISOM remained.
Somalia’s Prime Minister Hassan Ali Kheire told government news agency SONNA on Tuesday only soldiers not registered had not been paid.
“Let the commanders register the unpaid soldiers. After that let the commanders ask me the salaries,” he said.
Any sign of retreat or some form of weakness by Somali military is potentially a boost to al Shabaab. The group wants to expel AMISOM from Somalia, topple its central government and entrench its strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law.
The group was ejected from Mogadishu in 2011 and has since been driven from most of its other strongholds across the country. But it remains a formidable threat, with its fighters frequently carrying out bombings in Somalia and beyond.
Residents in the Middle Shabelle’s Balad town, 30 km (19 miles) to the north of Mogadishu, told Reuters they had seen dozens of military vehicles driving away from the bases.
Shopkeeper Mohamed Omar said he had counted over 20 military vehicles, some mounted with anti aircraft guns and mortars while others carried soldiers leaving the bases. “Some (vehicles) are still here, others left towards Mogadishu,” he said.
An elder in Balad town, Hasan Nur, said he feared the troops’ departure will invite in al Shabaab. “There is much fear that al Shabaab may capture many towns. That is what happens if soldiers leave the front line bases,” he said.
The Horn of Africa country has been striving to overhaul its security forces, especially the army, which have drawn accusations of corruption from Somalia’s international donors.
In 2017, the United States suspended food and fuel aid for most of Somalia’s armed forces for alleged graft in frustration at the failure of successive Somali governments to build a viable national army. (Writing by George Obulutsa; editing by Elias Biryabarema, Editing by Mark Heinrich/William Maclean)