Somali Islamists forced out of strong hold as rebuilding begins

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The walls of the former Shebab base in Baidoa, Somalia, are littered with rudimentary drawings of machine guns and tanks, a note reading “Fear God, don’t write on these walls” and a sketch of an al-Qaeda flag, homage to the rebel group’s international allies.

The crumbling building is now occupied by Ethiopian troops who nearly two weeks ago forced Shebab rebels out of Baidoa, their former Shebab stronghold and Somalia’s third-largest city. It is the second time Ethiopia has occupied Baidoa after pulling out of Somalia in 2009 following a bloody two-year war.

Residents are urging the Ethiopians to remain, and Ethiopia says it will leave as soon as peace is established, but it is not clear how long that could take.

“We don’t want to stay more, we want to stabilize this country and (leave),” said Ethiopian army Captain Mahmoud Yissak. “After the peace comes, we will go,” he added, speaking to reporters on a trip organized by the Ethiopian government.

But many say they need the Ethiopians to stay in order to ensure Shebab insurgents do not return.

“We need Ethiopia’s long presence here,” said an MP for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Mohamed Habselleh.

“This thing needs support, this thing depends how the TFG will support us, and how the Ethiopian troops will support us, if they support is very well… Baidoa won’t turn to the hands of Al Shebab,” he said, adding that life under Shebab in Baidoa was like an “earthquake.”

Keeping the city out of Shebab hands will require political institutions and a functioning administration, but Somalia’s Western-backed TFG is weak and controls less than half the country. And its tenure is set to end in August, when nation-wide elections are scheduled to be held.

“We need federal government, elections: one vote one man. We don’t need selected government, we need elected government,” said former governor of Baidoa, Abdifattah Guessay.

He does not know how long it might take to create a viable government in Baidoa, but for now he is happy Shebab is gone.

“There is a big chance now. The town had good buildings, good businesses, peace. (Shebab) destroyed good businesses, good people, they stopped everything,” he said.

The former radio station owner left Baidoa when Shebab took over in 2009, settling near the Ethiopian border. He is relieved to be back, he said, to rebuild Somalia’s commercial capital, where auto parts shops, bars and pharmacies are tightly packed together on the city’s main road that is lined by armed soldiers.

“I am back in my land, I am back in my community, I am back with my family, and I am back with my elected people,” Guessay told AFP.

Regardless of the TFG’s shaky political hold, Ethiopian and TFG soldiers are confident Shebab is close to defeat in the region and say they have little support from civilians.

“Al-Shebab, they have no roots in this country, the people are hating al-Shebab,” said Ethiopian general Yohannes Gebregiorgis. The army general did not rule out “working with the other side” to maintain stability. Authorities said they would cooperate with former Shebab fighters if they were willing to lay down arms.

Baidoa elders say residents are eager to return to normal life. What they need now, they say, is international support after years of war exacerbated by severe drought. Last year, six regions in Somalia were hit by famine, including Baidoa’s Bay region. Local officials say between 3,000 and 5,000 people were forced to leave Baidoa out of desperation. Most international aid agencies are barred from operating in Shebab-held areas of Somalia.

“We have many farmers, the land is very fertile, but there is no peace to cultivate the soil,” elder Maalim Ali Barre said, adding that four of his clan members were killed by Shebab rebels.

“We need emergency support, we have big problems here. People are dying, people are hungry, people are thirsty,” he added.

At a recent conference on Somalia in London, international powers pledged to boost support for Somalia, which has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for over two decades.

What some Baidoa leaders want now, they say, is for Ethiopia to liberate neighbouring districts from Shebab control to ensure regional peace.

“There are four regions (under Shebab control)… also you have to liberate those areas, that is a request from the people,” Guessay said.

For now, he is confident Shebab rebels will not return and their occupation of Baidoa is over for good.



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