Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 17:34 pm (KSA) 14:34 pm (GMT)

Shabaab fighters impose Sharia in Somali town

The Shabaab ordered traders to close businesses during prayer time
The Shabaab ordered traders to close businesses during prayer time

Somalia's Shabaab fighters imposed Sharia law on the port of Merka Thursday, as the Islamist group continued to tighten its grip on the Horn of Africa country.

The insurgents also briefly occupied three small towns on the outskirts of Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Thursday, but melted away as Ethiopian forces headed south from the city to confront them.

The capture of Merka on Wednesday gave the Islamists a new base for their near-daily attacks on the Western-backed interim government and its Ethiopian military allies.

Hours after taking over Merka town, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Mogadishu early Wednesday, al-Shabaab commander Mohammed Sheikh Abdi Muse ordered traders to close businesses during prayer time.

"Our aim is to implement Islamic Sharia in the region and everybody should know that we are equal," Muse told a crowd of residents.

Al-Shabaab fighters impose Sharia in Somali port town

Al-Shabaab is the resurgent military and youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union which briefly ruled most of the country before being ousted in 2006.

Many locals have welcomed the Shebab's takeover of the town, accusing the ousted local gunmen of extortion and blaming them for rising insecurity.

Al-Shabaab said they would not disrupt operations at Merka port, a key entry point for the international food aid urgently needed by more than a third of Somalia's population.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union had taken over most of the country before being ousted by Ethiopian forces who had intervened to provide firepower for the weak transitional government.

The Islamists have since splintered, the political leadership fleeing into exile and al-Shabaab engaging in a bruising guerrilla war that has left thousands of civilians dead.

Islamists have made significant military gains in recent months, leaving the embattled western-backed transitional federal government in control of only some parts of the capital Mogadishu and Baidoa, where parliament is seated.

Rights issues

Al-Shabaab's ironfisted rule in other towns has curbed banditry but also raised concerns over rights issues.

Two men were flogged in public in Mogadishu earlier this month and a teenage rape victim deemed to have committed adultery by an Islamic court was stoned to death in the southern port of Kismayo late last month.

When in power in 2006, the Islamists carried out executions, shut cinemas and photo shops, banned live music, flogged drug offenders and harassed civilians, mainly women, for failing to wear appropriate dress in public.

In addition, they banned foreign music, romances between unmarried teens, all commerce and public transport during prayer times and decreed that Muslims who did not pray daily could be punished by death.

A branch of the ICU is now engaged in the U.N.-sponsored Djibouti peace process and has committed itself to joint security efforts with the transitional government.

But Shabaab and allied hardliners have insisted that they will only enter negotiations once all Ethiopian troops have withdrawn from the country.

The insurgents also briefly occupied three small towns on the outskirts of Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Thursday, but melted away as Ethiopian forces headed south from the city to confront them.

The capture of Merka on Wednesday gave the Islamists a new base for their near-daily attacks on the Western-backed interim government and its Ethiopian military allies.

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