Somali President Under Siege By Extremists

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Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmad reportedly is holed up at the presidential palace as Islamist extremists try to knock him from power. Some of his best-trained officers have defected to the opposition, and he is now relying on U.N. troops to protect him.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Spain's last toehold in Africa. But first, Mogadishu is the center of intense fighting once again, this time between forces loyal to the moderate Islamist leader of Somalia's interim government and Islamist extremists who want to knock him out from power.

Somalia's president has the backing of the United States and other Western countries, but the Islamists also have some international support and they might just win. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: The president of Somalia's interim government is holed up at the presidential palace in Mogadishu with two rings of security around him. The outer ring is reportedly made up of boots, whatever homegrown forces are around to offer protection. The inner ring is made up of heavy weapons that African Union peacekeepers will use against anyone who gets too close. Whether that's enough to thwart Sheikh Sharif Ahmad's enemies is yet to be seen.

Ahmad has been president of Somalia's transitional government for less than four months, and there are some motivated Islamist extremists who are moving fast against him.

Abdul Gadeer Asman Mohammad(ph) is Ahmad's minister of information. Speaking by telephone from the palace, Mohammad says that the president has not been out of the building in more than a week. But he makes a daily circuit around a four-mile radius in the neighborhood.

Mr. ABDUL GADEER ASMAN MOHAMMAD (Minister of Information, Somalia): (Through translator) The government is controlling most of the strategic (unintelligible) Mogadishu, like the airport, the seaport, and the road where you have most of the government offices.

THOMPKINS: But a confederation of Islamist insurgents now controls three of the four main arteries into the capital and they pretty much control the rest of southern Somalia. International donors, including the United States, have promised Ahmad $200 million to build up his police and military and to bolster the African Union presence in Somalia.

But Ahmad has to survive long enough for the money to materialize. Mohammad says the extremists struck now because they're worried.

Mr. MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) (Unintelligible)the government because they feel the government is getting stronger.

THOMPKINS: The pledge of so much international support for Somalia's moderate Islamist president reportedly surprised Ahmad's enemies. What's more, Somali troops, freshly trained in Uganda, had begun returning home for active duty. But the U.S. and the United Nations say that the Islamist extremists have their own international backing.

The U.S. has accused Eritrea of sending weapons to an airport outside Mogadishu, controlled by the hard-line group there called Hezbol(ph) Islam. And perhaps the strongest extremist group, called El-Shabob(ph), is believed to have the support of al-Qaida.

Rashid Abdi Sheikh(ph) is an Somali watcher for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. He says that irrespective of international support, neither the moderates nor the extremists have what it takes to put the other side away for good, and that's what makes the situation there so impossible to predict.

Mr. RASHID ABDI SHEIKH (International Crisis Group): Somalia always have the potential to shock you. You should always keep that on the back of your mind.

THOMPKINS: Johnny Carson is the new U.S. envoy to Africa. Speaking from Nairobi this week, he called for a strong international effort to resolve the recurrent fighting and lawlessness in Mogadishu.

Mr. JOHNNY CARSON (U.S. Envoy to Africa): Somalia's problems have lingered for far too long and they have caused enormous problems internally, a displacement of millions of Somalis. But it's always created problems beyond its borders.

THOMPKINS: Like piracy, and a deluge of refugees that threatens to overwhelm Somalia's neighbors. But Rashid Abdi Sheikh of International Crisis Group says whatever the West and particularly the U.S. does will have to be done from afar. Sheikh Sharif Ahmad's enemies have already painted him as a U.S. puppet, practicing a fake kind of Islam. If Ahmad ever hopes to get out of the presidential palace, he'll have to show that he can stand on his own.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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