Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It's Not Just About The Pirates

Somalia has been in the news a lot over the past couple of years, almost entirely to do with the pirates which have left its coast to attack ships in the Red Sea. Both people and vessels have been held to big ransoms, and the continued lack of a central government worthy of the name in Somalia means that successful pirates have been able to go back home and live high on the hog courtesy of their ill-gotten gains.

But all of this has obscured Somalia's other problems, which will be familiar to anyone who's taken even a passing interest in the country at any point over the last couple of decades. A battle for control of Somalia's territory is raging between a group of Islamist fighters called al Shabaab, and the would-be government which is represented by African Union forces. Stuck somewhere in the middle, hopelessly outgunned as always, is the UN

Yesterday's escalation in the trouble came in Baidoa, in the south of the country and traditionally one of the more stable areas. After saying they'd force the UN out of Somalia, some al Shabaab fighters attacked and looted a couple of UN compounds. As a result, the UN has got out of Baidoa, with the staff legging it to Kenya. Al Shabaab has warned anyone else trying to carry out aid work in the area to contact them first, and they'll be told what they can and can't do.

This is Al Shabaab demonstrating to the UN, the would-be Somali government in the capital Mogadishu, and anyone else who's interested, just how powerful they are. In the areas they control, they can do whatever they want. Al Shabaab's aim is to conquer the whole country and reintroduce the kind of hardline Islamist government last seen during the brief rule of the Union of Islamic Courts back in 2006. The UIC sounded rather too much like the Taliban for the liking of the US and other western countries, and they supported Ethiopian troops who were used to drive the UIC out. If Al Shabaab continues to advance, expect the US and others to consider something similar.

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