Insurgents Step Up Fight Against Somali Government

Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government in nearly two decades. The government controls just a few blocks of the capital city Mogadishu. Militants are trying to overthrow that government and set up a strict Islamist regime. The insurgents, called al-Shabab, have staged a month-long offensive that has included suicide bombings.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

We go now to one of the world's most dangerous cities: Mogadishu in Somalia. There hasn't been a fully functioning government there in nearly two decades. Today, the government controls just a few blocks of the capital city.

Militants are trying to overthrow that government and set up a strict, Islamist regime. The insurgents are called al-Shabab and they have staged a month-long offensive that has included suicide bombings.

NPRs Frank Langfitt has spent the last few days in Mogadishu. He joins us on the line.

Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us where you are right now?

LANGFITT: Right now I'm on the beach in Mogadishu, looking out over the Indian Ocean. And that's the same Indian Ocean where those Somali pirates always are, you know, taking over ships.

Somalia, as you know, it's on the Horn of Africa, not far from the Arabian Peninsula. And the reason I'm on the beach is because this is one of the few safe places I could actually talk to you. I'm on the edge of a military base that's run by the African Union. They have about 7,000 troops here and they're propping up that government you were just mentioning.

WERTHEIMER: So what is the latest on the fighting?

LANGFITT: Well, as you were pointing out, Linda, during Ramadan there was this all-out attack. Al-Shabab was trying to topple the government, run them into the ocean - literally. They attacked the airport, blew up one of the gates there, suicide bombers went after a hotel and killed legislators.

Now, the government, as you said, is surrounded by militants, but it's still standing. A couple of days ago we went out with African Union forces. They are pushing al-Shabab back in some areas of town. We were traveling with the troops, kind of going house to house, seeing their position, while people were trading sniper fire.

So while al-Shabab has the government pretty much pinned down, there is a fair bit of movement by the African Union to kind of get more breathing space.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what exactly do these people want, the militants who are attacking the government?

LANGFITT: Yeah, they have ties to al-Qaida. And what they really want is to try to create a very harsh Islamic regime here. And then they want to take it to neighboring countries.

Now, they've been recruiting, also, militant - the militants have been recruiting Somali Americans to fight here. And one of the concerns back in the United States is they might send these militants back to the U.S. as suicide bombers.

WERTHEIMER: Frank, you said you'd been driving around the city with the African Union troops. What does it look like? What does Mogadishu look like these days?

LANGFITT: It's - Linda, it's like no place I've ever seen at all. It's bombed out buildings, really, as far as the eye can see, most of them empty. You pass militias in technicals. Those are those pickup trucks with the .50 caliber machine guns on the back.

It is very dangerous. We travel - there are a number of journalists that I'm where with reporting. We travel in armored personnel carriers. We race through town at, like, 60 miles an hour from base to base, because it's too risky to stay out there and be exposed.

Now, the last two days have been - the last two or three days have been relatively calm, a little sniper fire, a little mortar action. But, you know, that's pretty quiet by Mogadishu standards.

WERTHEIMER: What has happened to the people who lived in Mogadishu? Are any of them still there?

LANGFITT: There are. I mean, one of the things that was kind of surprising to me is, in parts of town where the government has some control - and I, you know, that's very, very limited control - there are people out and about. I mean, I passed markets. I saw people selling fruit from beneath colored umbrellas. Yesterday, as I was leaving a government building, I saw kids kicking soccer balls.

Now, a lot of these residents, they have to move all the time because of the shelling and the violence. I talked to one guy who'd moved like four times in three years. And he was now in a small room with 12 family members and lots of mattresses.

The other thing is just the carnage. Lots of people have been both mentally traumatized and physically really damaged by this war. I meant a kid yesterday in a hospital ward, a little girl named Hawa(ph). She's about 10 years old. Beautiful, brilliant smile, but missing two legs because of a mortar attack.

WERTHEIMER: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: And be careful.

LANGFITT: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Frank Langfitt, reporting from Mogadishu in Somalia.

INSKEEP: And our listeners will know Frank for his past economic coverage on NPR. Now he is beginning a stint in east Africa, opening a window for us on a rapidly changing part of the world. And we'll be listening.

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