MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed urged the international community on Monday to help his forces fend off hardline Islamist rebels who have hundreds of foreign fighters in their ranks.
Neighbouring states and Western security services fear Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for 18 years, could become a base for al Qaeda-linked militants and destabilise the region, unless the new government can defeat them.
A surge in violence this month has killed nearly 200 people in Mogadishu and driven some 60,000 residents from their homes. At least 53 people have died since Friday morning when the government attacked insurgent strongholds in the capital.
“We will not allow Somalia to be a haven for groups with foreign ideologies like Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ahmed told a news conference at his white-washed, hill-top Villa Somalia palace.
“We urge Somalis to defend against those groups that include foreigners, and we ask the international community to back us.”
A suicide car bomber killed six policemen and a civilian in the bomb-blasted city on Sunday, and the hardline al Shabaab insurgent movement said that more suicide attacks would target pro-government forces in the coming days.
Shabaab, which the United States says has close links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, has been spearheading the rebel offensive with allied guerrilla group Hizbul Islam. They stepped up attacks in the capital earlier this month.
The United Nations says hundreds of foreign fighters have joined the insurgents and an influential opposition leader told Reuters on Friday that some Arabs had come to Somalia to wage holy war against the Western-backed government.
Security sources say the hardline Islamist insurgents have been planting more sophisticated roadside bombs in recent months and suicide attacks have become more frequent.
The chaos onshore has also allowed piracy to flourish off Somalia’s long coastline, prompting an unprecedented deployment by foreign navies to try to curb the attacks.
Fighting between the insurgents and pro-government forces has killed at least 17,700 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven more than a million from their homes. About 3 million Somalis survive on emergency food aid.
The U.N.’s refugee agency said 57,000 people have fled Mogadishu since the upsurge in bloodshed this month.
“It’s almost impossible for us, or even our Somalis partner organisations, to reach these people, who are likely to go without food and shelter for a long time,” Roberta Russo, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said in Nairobi.