Nairobi - Militants from the insurgent group al-Shabaab appeared to be
gathering hundreds of fighters and attempting to recruit even more in
villages outside a Somalia border town invaded by Ethiopian troops over the
weekend, residents said on Monday.
Hundreds of Ethiopian troops moved into the Somali town of Beledweyne on
Saturday, opening a third front against al-Shabaab militants, who also face
Kenyan troops in Somalia's south and African Union troops in the capital,
Residents in Beledweyne said on Monday that they welcome the presence of
Ethiopia's military because it has forced al-Shabaab militants out of the
town. But a resident in a nearby village said that militants were amassing
hundreds of fighters in forests outside Beledweyne. Bearded, masked men also
tried to persuade locals in the town of Bulo Burte to join what they were
calling "holy jihad," the resident said.
"We fear they will conscript our children because they are asking for more
fighters," said Elmi Kheyre, a local elder. "They also visited Quranic
schools and asked teachers to convince students to join al-Shabaab. We fear
rampant conscription of children and elderly people."
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006, spawning fierce resistance and the
militant group that has become al-Shabaab. But residents on Monday said that
so far they welcome the Ethiopians' presence. Harsh punishments - lashings,
amputations and stonings - and strict social rules enforced by al-Shabaab
has eroded the group's popularity.
"We really feel like we are in a new world after al-Shabaab left us," Ali
Abdullahi, a resident in Beledweyne, said by phone. "People are free. There
is no longer any oppression and fear. The oppressors have left."
Residents say cafes and other social sites are crowded with people talking
about their lives under al-Shabaab's rule.
"Now people are feeling ... that al-Shabaab are gone for good," said Sadiya
Hussein, a mother of three.
"If Ethiopians joined the war, we felt it's the final game for al-Shabaab.
We ask the Ethiopians to avoid killing our people like they did before."
Control of Beledweyne has lurched back and forth between al-Shabaab and
Somali government fighters and militias. In previous years when Ethiopian
troops entered people fled and businesses, schools and mosques closed.
Residents said on Monday that Ethiopian troops were mingling with locals in
cafes and at businesses, showing some sort of sense of trust.
"Previously we feared we will be harmed by Islamists if we do business with
Ethiopians," said Nor Sheik, who has a small shop. "But we can now do
business with them because the Islamists are no more and will never return,"
he said, perhaps overly confidently.
US-backed Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia in 2006 at the invitation of
the weak, the UN-backed Somali government. But the incursion was seen by
many Somalis as an unpopular invasion. Ethiopians pulled out in early 2009,
and there are fears that a new push by Somalia could be a propaganda coup
Ethiopia in November said it was considering whether to contribute troops to
the African Union force in Somalia. Kenya's parliament recently voted for
its forces to join the AU force. That move is awaiting approval by the
The central Somalia town of Beledweyne is about 30km from the border with
Ethiopia. A commercial hub, it lies on a key road that links Mogadishu with
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Received on Tue Jan 03 2012 - 07:56:45 EST