A Somali Islamist militia that the United States calls a terrorist organization seized a key port town Wednesday, giving it control of most of southern Somalia and sidelining the weak government.
The capture of Merka, 56 miles from the capital, Mogadishu, means the hardline al-Shabab militia holds both major ports with airstrips south of the capital, Mogadishu. Merka is a key conduit for food and aid workers. The group now controls most of the country's south, with the crucial exceptions of Mogadishu and Baidoa, where the parliament sits.
The group, which seized a strategic town in central Somalia on Tuesday, has not controlled Merka since 2006, when it was ousted from power by Ethiopian soldiers supporting the shaky transitional government.
The former Islamic administration immediately launched an Iraq-style insurgency. Earlier this year, the more moderate faction signed an ineffectual peace deal with the government.
Alleged links with al-Qaida
The U.S. State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization because of alleged links between its leaders and al-Qaida. It aims to impose Shariah law on Somalia.
Analysts believe al-Shabab wants to consolidate as much territory under its control as possible to undermine any other potential peace talks between the moderates and the government.
In Merka, al-Shabab was able to seize the town without resistance after poorly paid and ill-disciplined pro-government fighters ran away.
"The administrators and the police forces had left the town last night after receiving information that al-Shabab was heading for it," said Mohamed Mohamud, a security official for the regional governor.
Resident Abdi-Nur Haji Muridi said, "Nearly 200 heavily armed fighters loyal to al-Shabab, with several vehicles mounted with machine-guns, have moved into our town early this morning unopposed. They were waving at people and shouting words like 'God is Great.'"
Port still shipping out food
The U.N.'s World Food Program Nairobi-based spokesman Peter Smerdon said the situation in Merka was calm and the program planned to continue using the port to ship in food.
On Tuesday, the Islamists captured two towns in the same region, Qoryoley and Bula Marer, as well as a town lying on a strategic crossroads in central Somalia. Resident Omar Abdi in Bula Marer confirmed the Islamists were in control of the town. They also control much of the south, including the port of Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city, and some towns in central Somalia.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a socialist dictator and then turned their clan-based militias on each other. Half of the population of 7 million will be dependent on aid by the end of the year and 850,000 people depend on food that comes through Merka's port.