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MOGADISHU, Oct 23, (Agencies): Islamist militant group al Shebab on Sunday seized control of yet another town in central Somalia after it was abandoned by African Union peacekeepers, a militant spokesman and a local official said, the third to fall to insurgents this month. On Sunday, an Ethiopian contingent abandoned the town of Halgan in the Hiran region, allowing the group’s fighters to enter soon after, said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shebab’s spokesman on military operations.
A military offensive launched in 2014 by AU forces and the Somali army pushed out of major strategic centres, but the insurgents, who once held sway over much of the Horn of Africa country, still control some settlements and rural areas. The fall of Halgan was confirmed by Dahir Amin Jesow, a member of parliament from the region, who said residents are being subjected to reprisals at the hands of the insurgents. “Each day, civilians are being beheaded over suspicion that they are government supporters,” he told Reuters. “We do not have a government that is effective enough to protect our civilians.” The reason for the peacekeepers’ withdrawal was not clear. Officials in Ethiopia were not immediately available for comment.
Somalia has been convulsed by instability, conflict and lawlessness since the early 1990s following the toppling of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Propped up by the African Union-mandated force known as AMISOM, Somalia’s military and central government have strengthened their grip on the country but a relentless campaign of violence by al Shebab persists. The group regularly attacks AMISOM’s troops, which is made up of about 22,000 soldiers and police from African nations supporting Somalia’s government and army. Al Shebab aims to drive out the peacekeepers, topple Somalia’s Western-backed government and impose a strict version of Islam.
In another development, Somali pirates have freed 26 Asian hostages held for nearly five years after the hijacking of their fishing vessel, the last commercial ship seized at the height of the country’s piracy scourge, negotiators said Saturday. The crew of the Naham 3, the second longest held hostage by Somali pirates, were taken captive when their Omani-flagged vessel was seized in March 2012 south of the Seychelles.
“We are very pleased to announce the release of the Naham 3 crew early this morning,” said John Steed, coordinator of the Hostage Support Partners (HSP) who helped negotiate their release. Steed, a retired British army colonel who has made it his mission to save “forgotten hostages” told AFP the mission to return the crew to their families still held one obstacle: extracting them from the city of Galkayo, where fighting was raging between forces from the rival regional states of Puntland and Galmudug. “There is fighting in Galkayo so it is very dangerous at the moment, they are exchanging artillery tonight. We will go in early tomorrow morning if the fighting stops and bring them back to Nairobi for medicals and a clean-up.”
Clashes in Galkayo have left at least 11 dead and over 50,000 displaced this month, the UN humanitarian agency said last week. Once extracted, the crew, from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, will be returned to their home countries and families. “They have spent over four and a half years in deplorable conditions away from their families,” said Steed. He said the crew was malnourished and one of the hostages had a bullet wound in his foot, another had a stroke and another was suffering from diabetes.