Somali Islamists seized more territory near Mogadishu overnight, witnesses said on Tuesday, as their hardline Islamist leader said he was would negotiate with the government but it must accept Islamic law.
In the first attack around Mogadishu since militia loyal to sharia courts took the capital from warlords this month, five people were killed when gunmen seized three checkpoints controlled by a warlord.
Abdi Awale Qaybdiid, who was part of the defeated self-styled anti-terrorism warlord alliance and has remained in Mogadishu, said he would respond to the attack.
“The Islamic militia took my positions last night,” Qaybdiid told reporters. “Any attack around, in or outside Mogadishu will be the responsibility of those who seized my positions.”
An Islamist official confirmed the seizure of the checkpoints on the route to Afgoye, about 13 miles from the capital.
Deputy Information Minister Salad Ali Jele said the Islamic courts had violated an agreement signed in Sudan’s capital Khartoum last week to stop military campaigns.
“They agreed not to start new violence,” Jele said in a statement from Baidoa where the interim government is based.
Powerful sharia courts
The sharia courts now control a large swathe of Somalia and have appointed Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, named in a U.N. list of al-Qaida associates, to lead their governing council, raising fears they want to install Taliban-style rule in Somalia.
Aweys said in an interview published on Tuesday by the Xogogaal daily newspaper that the Islamists plan to implement “sharia law and its order to all inside the country.”
Their victory dealt the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign an embarrassing setback, as its funding for the much-despised warlords gave the Islamists popular support that fuelled their rapid march across a key part of Somalia.
Washington has said it would have no contact with Aweys but is yet to decide on relations with the group as a whole.
Aweys repeated his denial of any affiliation with al-Qaida or other extremist groups.
“If being a Muslim is crime, I am a Muslim,” he said. “I am not on the American list of terrorists, but I am in a list of those who lost their money due to the closure of Barakat Money Remittance Company by the Americans.”
Barakat — a Somali wire transfer company — was shut down by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings, in what it said was a move to stem financing for extremists.
Aweys said the Islamists would keep their promise to negotiate with President Abdullahi Yusuf’s weak but internationally recognized interim government.
But he said the temporary charter now guiding the government must comply with the sharia.
“We will negotiate with them, discuss and remove the secular articles that are opposed to the Islamic law,” Aweys told the newspaper. “The TFG should accept this because the TFG members are also Muslim.”
The transitional federal government (TFG), formed in late 2004, has a five-year mandate during which it is being guided by a transitional charter with a goal of creating a new one and holding elections at the end of the interim period.
“One of the pillars of our charter says any rule and law against the Islamic sharia law is null and void. We don’t see it as a problem,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
But the degree of strictness the Islamists may seek is likely to differ from that of the government. Somalis in general practice a moderate form of Islam.
Some said the Islamists’ plans to stone to death five rapists on Monday, since delayed, shows they want to pursue a hardline Islamic authority despite presenting a moderate face.