A radical Islamic group that was driven from power one year ago by a Western-supported offensive is making a significant comeback in Somalia and the government can do little to stop it, officials said Thursday, a day violence took at least 17 more lives.
Most of the deaths occurred when mortar rounds slammed into the biggest market in Mogadishu, killing at least 12.
Sheik Qasim Ibrahim Nur, director of security at Somalia's National Security Ministry, said the government has no power to resist the Islamic group, which the United States has accused of having ties to al-Qaida.
Fighters linked to the group, the Council of Islamic Courts, have been waging an Iraq-style insurgency that has killed thousands of people this year, and the United Nations says the country is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis in Africa.
"About 80 percent of Somalia is not safe and is not under control of the government," Nur told The Associated Press. "Islamists are planning to launch a massive attack against the (government) and its allied troops."
He appealed for international support, saying Islamic fighters "are everywhere."
A country in crisis
Government officials rarely acknowledge what many observers have concluded about their tenuous grip on power. But on Thursday, when contacted by the AP, even presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamed Mohamud confirmed that Muslim fighters were regrouping. He added that they have "a lot of weapons and foreign fighters."
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged more African nations to send peacekeepers to Somalia, perhaps the most strategically located nation in the Horn of Africa. At a crossroads between the Middle East and Africa, Somalia dominates vital sea lanes, although rampant piracy has made the waters treacherous.
About 1,800 Ugandan peacekeepers are in Somalia, officially as the vanguard of a larger AU peacekeeping force, though no other countries have sent reinforcements so far. Ethiopia, which with tacit U.S. approval sent soldiers to Somalia last year to wipe out the Islamic militants, is not part of the peacekeeping force and is hoping to withdraw.
The United States can do little by itself in Somalia. An intervention in the early 1990s left 18 U.S. servicemen dead and the legacy of the "Black Hawk Down" battle still weighs heavily on both countries. But Western powers have long been concerned that the lawless country could become a breeding ground for terror.
Ted Dagne, an African specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the U.S. Congress, said the Islamic leadership was never truly gone, simply underground.
"The Somali and Ethiopian governments may have underestimated the level of organization and determination on the part of the Islamic courts," he said.
Dagne added that many people look back on the group's six months in power and conclude the country then "was relatively peaceful and gave hope to the people of Somalia that after over a decade of violence, they can live in peace."
President Abdullahi Yusuf was in London, where he flew earlier this week for what his aides described as a regular medical checkup. On Thursday, the 73-year-old president was said to be well, but uncertainty over his condition persists, adding to the tension in his homeland.
Officials from Ethiopia denied there is any Islamic resurgence. "The facts on the ground tell you that they are in bad shape and having serious difficulties," said Bereket Simon, special adviser Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Earlier Thursday, mortar rounds slammed into the biggest market in Mogadishu, killing at least 12 people and wounding more than 40, witnesses said. A separate gunbattle killed five people.
The death toll was expected to rise from the latest bloodshed, blamed on the vicious back-and-forth battles pitting insurgents against Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies.
"I saw so many dead people lying on the road, I couldn't even look at them, I was so scared for my life," Salah Garweyne, a Mogadishu resident, told The Associated Press.
At least 19 of the wounded were in critical condition, said Dr. Hassan Osman Isse at Medina Hospital.
Outside Mogadishu, members of the Islamic group and the feared Shabab — its military wing — have been spotted with increasing frequency throughout central Somalia. In previous months, they have been hiding.
In Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city, a member of the Shabab said his group was sending soldiers to the capital daily to fight the Ethiopians. The fighter asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. Kismayo is some 310 miles south of the capital.
Over the weekend, about 50 heavily armed militiamen briefly overran Bula Burte town in central Somalia, some 200 kilometers (about 130 miles) north of the capital, said the regional governor, Yusuf Dabaged.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991, then turned on one another. The current government was formed in 2004 with the support of the U.N., but has struggled to assert any real control.