There’s no shortage of diplomatic and military developments within Somalia, though it’s difficult to sort rumor from fact. IRIN is reporting that the UIC – the Union of Islamic Courts, which controls Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia – has agreed to negotiations with the transitional government of Somalia, which controls the provincial town of Baidoa and has looked weak and disorganized since a failed no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi and the resignation of 40 Somali MPs. UIC had previously refused to participate in the Khartoum negotiations until all Ethiopian troops had left Somalia – Ethiopia denies that its troops are in Somalia, though there are numerous reports of uniformed Ethiopian military personnel in and around Baidoa. UIC has now dropped this requirement and agreed to negotiations in Khartoum beginning August 31st. Prime Minister Gedi has been requesting a ceasefire prior to negotations – no indications so far that the UIC is interested in such an agreement.
In the meantime, UIC fighters – advancing in “technicals”, Toyota pickup trucks mounted with machine guns – are reported to have captured the port town of Hobyo without a fight. But the BBC reports that UIC denies that it captured Hobyo, saying instead that their armed vehicles “reached the people of Hobyo to bring them our message of peace.”
Hobyo is very close to Puntland, the home of interim President Abdullahi Yusuf. UIC may have been able to seize Hobyo by promising free passage for the clan leaders who controlled the town, allowing them to retreat to the north. Control of Hobyo may be part of an effort to control piracy on the southern coast of Somalia, which has long been a no-go zone for international shipping due to widespread piracy. BBC reports that the UIC moved into Harardhere and Eldher ports this weekend, both of which had been bases for pirate gang – both ports are south of Hobyo, closer to Mogadishu where UIC is based.
Christian Science Monitor, in a story about Somali refugees flowing into overcrowded Kenyan refugee camps, shares reports that UIC has moved into Bur Haqaba, a town very close to Baidoa, in territory that was believed to be controlled by the provisional government. And the Mail and Guardian has a story on UIC reports that some provisional government soldiers are defecting to the UIC forces, which the government confirms, though stresses that a small number of soliders left their posts.
SomaliNet, a Somali expatriate site based in the UK, has an intriguing report that Ethiopian forces are digging in in the Balanbale district of Galgadud region, a region on the border with Ethiopia. I can’t find confirmation of this, or much military logic for the action, as the maps I have access to don’t have major roads across the border in western Galgadud.
SomaliNet also reports Ethiopian troop presence near Beledweyne, the major city in Hiraan province, close to the Ethiopian border and to Baidoa. UIC announced control of this town last week – SomaliNet suggests that Ethiopian troops are allying with clan leaders who’d been ousted from Beledweyne when UIC moved in.
The backdrop for this conflict is an east African drought which already threatens food security in Somalia. 1.8 million Somalis already depend on food aid for survival – the UN’s Food Security Analysis Unit predicts that that number could double based on displacement from the ongoing conflict.