Friday, February 5, 2016

Somalia - Shebab fighters seize Merka port: governor

Mogadishu (AFP) - Somalia's Shebab insurgents on Friday retook their stronghold of Merka from African Union troops who had held the key port since 2012, in one of the biggest setbacks for the multi-national force.

The loss of Merka, the state capital of Lower Shabelle, is one of the most dramatic reverses for the AU force in its nearly decade-long battle against the Shebab.

"The AU troops pulled out of the town and Shebab militants entered -- and have secured control without fighting," Ibrahim Adam, governor of the Lower Shabelle region told reporters.

The historic port, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, was captured in August 2012 by African Union troops.

It is one of the first major towns the Shebab have seized back and it gives them access to a sea port again.

There was no immediate response from the AU force, known by its acronym AMISOM, or government officials.

Residents confirmed the takeover, saying heavily armed Shebab fighters swept into the town with Islamist black flags, before addressing residents.
"AMISOM forces moved out at midday and the local administration and all other Somali security forces left a few minutes later - and then heavily armed Shebab militants entered the town," said Ibrahim Mumin, a local.

"They have been addressing residents at the district headquarters."

- Fears jet blast was bomb -

The loss of Merka comes as foreign investigators probe a blast on a commercial airliner that ripped a hole in its fuselage, 15 minutes after take-off from Mogadishu on Tuesday, which the pilot and experts fear was a bomb.

One passenger, named by the government as Abdulahi Abdisalam Borle, was killed, apparently sucked out through the ragged hole ripped in the metal.

The Shebab have not claimed responsibility so far and Minister for Transport Ali Jama Jangeli has called on people to await the results of the investigation.
But the seizure of Merka, as well as recent high profile Shebab attacks on AU bases, appears part of an offensive after months of apparent retreat, amid reported splits between factions allied to Al-Qaeda and some splinter groups favouring Islamic State.

The Shebab are fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu, which is protected by 22,000 AU troops.

The insurgents have lost ground since being routed from Mogadishu in 2011 but continue to stage regular shooting and suicide attacks, and in recent months have staged a series of brazen raids on AU bases.

- Car bomb kills three -

Last month they stormed a Kenyan army base at El-Adde in southwest Somalia, in the latest incident of an AMISOM base being overrun, before retreating.

In September, Shebab fighters stormed a Ugandan AMISOM base in Janale district, southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, speaking at an AU summit last month, called for more "resources for the forces in Somalia so that AMISOM can have robust power on land, air and the sea."

AU troops have been hampered by a lack of air power -- including attack helicopters -- leaving their bases often isolated and supply lines vulnerable to attack by Shehab gunmen controlling surrounding rural areas.

A car bomb also exploded in Mogadishu on Friday, killing three people, although the airport official it was apparently targeting escaped unharmed.

Witnesses described an enormous explosion with the car bursting into flames. The man believed to have been targeted had just left the vehicle to go into a chemist's shop.

"A man got out of the car and entered a pharmacy, but before he returned a huge blast ripped through the car. I saw several people burned," said Aded Mohamed, who was near the explosion.

It is unclear whether the car bomb was in any way related to the plane explosion, but security has been boosted around the already heavily fortified airport, AMISOM's main base.