Somali government forces have seized control of a central town from an al Qaeda-linked Islamist militia, a spokesman for Somalia’s president said Thursday.
“Bulo Burde is now under the control of government forces after our forces overran a stiff resistance at the entrance bridge of the town by Al Shabaab fighters,” said Abdulkadir Mohamed Osman, communication director for Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Somalia’s transitional president. Despite the announcement, residents said heavy fighting continued Thursday and the town is still divided between pro-government forces and Al Shabaab fighters. The ongoing exchange of heavy-weapon fire between the two sides has trapped people in the town, residents said. “Everyone inside this house is scared because heavy shells are raining in the town,” said one resident, Sahra Muse. Bulo Burde is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) southeast of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The United States is supporting the Somali government’s fight against the insurgents, including providing weapons to government forces. Al Shabaab is on the U.S. list of terror organizations because of its ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. The United States is concerned that Somalia’s weak government could fall to the Islamist insurgency, as it did in 2006 before Ethiopian forces ousted the militants from power later that year.
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Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Somalia’s transitional president and vowed to continue U.S. support for his government. “The United States and the international community must serve as an active partner in helping the TFG [transitional federal government] and the people of Somalia confront and ultimately move beyond the conflict and poverty that have gripped their country,” Clinton said at a joint news conference with Ahmed at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The United States announced in June that it is providing weapons and ammunition to help Ahmed’s government fight the militants. The weapons shipments are in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which ban some arms shipments to Somalia, said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. Clinton warned that terrorist groups like Al Shabaab pose a threat to the broader international community. “Certainly if Al Shabaab were to obtain a haven in Somalia, which could then attract al Qaeda and other terrorist actors, it would be a threat to the United States,” she said. There are growing concerns that Somalia could be the next base for al Qaeda as U.S. forces pound their positions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently said that the intelligence agency is keeping tabs on the region as a possible destination for fleeing al Qaeda operatives. “Our concern right now is that likely safe havens are areas in the Horn of Africa, like Somalia and Yemen, that are countries that because of their political status can be attractive to al Qaeda in order to operate there,” Panetta said in June. Separately, the FBI is investigating what appears to be a massive recruiting effort by Al Shabaab in immigrant communities in the United States. More than a dozen young men of Somali descent have disappeared from the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area in recent months. At least three of them, including a suicide bomber, have been killed in Somalia. Also, Australia recently announced the arrests of four men with ties to Al Shabaab who were suspected of planning a suicide attack on a military base in the southern state of Victoria. President Ahmed is a former member of the Islamic Courts Union, which took part in the 2006 coup. His decision to renounce the bloody insurgency and try to establish peace in Somalia has put him at odds with Islamist hard-liners who are still battling for control of Somalia. It also paved the way for his election as president of Somalia’s U.N.-backed transitional government in January.