Mogadishu battle "marks turning point"

Al-Shabab, Somalia's Islamist opposition group, has suffered its first serious military setback in fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, giving the government a much-needed morale boost, say analysts.

"Whether the tide has turned against them is too early to tell but they have taken a beating [in fighting on 12 July]," a Somali observer, who requested anonymity, said.

Clashes between the Islamist insurgents and the forces of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, backed by African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops, known as AMISOM, reportedly left at least 51 people dead and injured 212, locals said.

"Most of those who died [on 12 July] were combatants,” Ali Sheikh Yassin, deputy chairman of the Mogadishu-based Elman Human Rights Organization, told IRIN.

Other sources said the insurgents lost significant territory. "They have been pushed from a number of neighbourhoods in north Mogadishu which they had controlled," said one.

“Silver lining”

The Somali observer said groups such as Al-Shabab were not known to care how many [fighters] they lost in a given battle, but the setback may have “a silver lining to bring to the fore differences of strategy and approach within them and between them and their allies Hisbul-Islami [led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former ally of President Ahmed]”.

The observer said some parts of the opposition had argued that since they controlled most of the country, the fighting should stop to allow people to return home.

“This group favours dialogue with the government from a position of strength,” he said, adding that “there are some who even want to talk, not only to the government, but to the international community”.

The more radical elements insist they could remove the government by force “within days”.

“Sunday [12 July] reinforces the position of those who favour some sort of dialogue," the observer said. "How the government uses this opportunity is a different matter."

He said if the government were to take advantage of the opposition's setback it needed to put its house in order. "The first it [the government] must do is bring its forces under one command. There are at least three or four militia fighting on the government side with no central command."

The government must also restart dialogue with those in the opposition willing to talk, he added.

Labour Minister Mohamed Abdi Hayir, who is also acting Minister of Information, said the government “never wanted more fighting but was forced into it. While [Sunday's] fighting was regrettable, it was necessary. For over two months, we have been under attack. We must deal with these anti-peace elements."

Photo: ReliefWeb

Jaw-jaw not war-war

However, Hayir said the government would still pursue reconciliation.

"We are still open to dialogue with those willing to talk," he said. "Any grievances they have can be and should be resolved through dialogue. We are hopeful that after Sunday many will realize they will never achieve anything through the barrel of the gun.

“This was an opportunity for them [some of the opposition] to re-evaluate their positions.”

However, Timothy Othieno, a regional analyst at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, told IRIN the fighting and reported capture of foreign combatants “may not drastically change the situation”.

He said the reported involvement of AU troops could complicate “AMISOM's position as an impartial player in Somalia and it will be interesting to see how they [AMISOM] rectify their position”.

Othieno said there was always a question over AMISOM's neutrality and it was just a matter of time before it was drawn into the war with the militant groups.

"Therefore, this latest situation does actually highlight the precarious position AMISOM peacekeepers in Somalia find themselves in," he added.

However, a Somali journalist in Mogadishu said the fighting was "a turning point for AMISOM, the government and the insurgents”.

For the government, the journalist said, AMISOM's involvement showed that with a little help, "they can actually push back these guys [Al-Shabab]", adding that Al-Shabab now knows that "the international community was serious when it said it will support the government”.

He added: "I think there is going to be a lot of re-evaluation by all sides."