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Ethiopia Opens Three-Day Talks With Somali Rebels

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WASHINGTON — The first round of three-day talks between Ethiopian officials and representatives from the Ethiopian rebel group of ethnic Somalis, Ogden National Liberation Front (ONLF), began Sunday at a secret location in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Delegates from the two sides arrived Saturday for the talks that are being facilitated by Kenyan officials.

Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge, a spokesman for the ONLF, confirmed to VOA Somali that the talks have begun.

Hirmoge said each side has sent a delegation of four members. The ONLF delegation is led by Foreign Secretary Abdirahman Mahdi. It is unclear who is leading the Ethiopian delegation, but photos released by the Kenyan facilitators show the president of the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, Abdi Mohamud Omar, sitting on the opposite side of the table, along with other officials.

A source close to the talks told VOA Somali that “Day One of the talks covered considerable ground and ended on a high note.”

Hirmoge cautioned that it was too soon to say how the talks might end because “there are big issues at stake.”

“We can’t talk prematurely, but these talks are about principles, on compensation, on self-determination, on freedom, referendum, on the economy and centuries-old aggression,” he said.

ONLF and the Ethiopian government fell out in 1994 after a dispute over self-determination. The dispute drove ONLF to war and turned the ethnic Somali state, rich with gas and oil, into a deadly battleground that claimed many lives.

In April 2007, ONLF rebels attacked an oil field in an Obolleh village near the regional capital of Jigjiga, killing 67 Ethiopian soldiers and nine Chinese oil workers. In response, Ethiopia heavily militarized the region and carried out a brutal operation, according to human rights organizations.

Previous failures

Talks were held in 2012 and 2013 in Kenya without concessions from either side.

Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, said there were a number of issues that made the previous talks difficult.

“They (talks) have been characterized by a lot of mutual suspicion and a lack of confidence. But I think there was also the death of (former Ethiopian prime minister) Meles Zenawi, and the transition had an impact on how the talks should proceed,” he said.

“I think clearly all parties seemed to lack a bit of focus. On the part of the ONLF, I think they came to the table without having a clear vision on how they wanted to proceed, while the Ethiopians were basically seeking very minimal tactical advantages.”

Even with the talks having resumed, Abdi said it won’t be easy for the two sides to reach an agreement without significant compromises. The main sticking points are the Ethiopian constitution and referendum.

“Ethiopians want ONLF to concede on the issue of the constitution,” Abdi said. “ONLF previously said they were not going to recognize the federal constitution, and that was one of the sticking points. So, I suspect this issue will not be quickly resolved.

“Then there is the issue of what exactly ONLF wants? Does it want greater autonomy in the Somali region? Does it simply want power sharing, so that it can be part of the federal system? Does it want to monopolize power in the region? Does it want full independence? Those are the key issues.”

History of unrest

Ethiopia has seen political upheavals since 2016 following waves of protests in the Oromo region. There was also deadly ethnic violence in 2017 between Ethiopian Somalis in Oromo, which claimed dozens of lives and displaced tens of thousands of people.

ONLF’s Hirmoge said conditions on the ground in Ethiopia have something to do with the resumption of these talks.

“Now, we believe there have been big changes in Ethiopia. The conditions are changing. People cannot be silenced now. The talks coincide at a time when things are changing in Ethiopia on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. These have their own ripple effects,” Hirmoge says.

“I believe the conditions around the talks are better,” he added. “The prediction is different compared to previous ones (talks), but I don’t want to prejudge the result.” .

Abdi agrees that the timing of the talks is interesting and could work in favor of the stressed Ethiopian government.

“It comes at a time when Ethiopia feels under pressure from many multiple forms,” he said. “It has serious unrest, so they desperately need a good story. So, the resumption of the peace talks plays well internationally. Ethiopia can say ‘We are engaging the opposition.’ It’s good publicity, but one has to also consider whether there is really a strategic shift and interest to find a peaceful settlement, or are we simply back to the old games of simply playing tactical games?”

VOA Somali could not reach Ethiopian officials for comment.

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US military says drone strike in Somalia kills 4 extremists

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VOA — A U.S. drone strike has killed several al-Shabab militants in southern Somalia, officials tell VOA.

Local sources said missiles fired Wednesday targeted a rickshaw carrying five al-Shabab militants near Jamaame, in the southern Lower Juba region.

“I can tell you that the airstrike hit a rickshaw and that five militants were killed. It was carried out by U.S. drone, helping our intelligence forces on the ground,” a Somali government official told VOA Somali on the condition of anonymity.

The attack was confirmed by witnesses and local residents, who also asked for anonymity because they feared militant reprisals.

Somali officials said they were investigating the identity of those targeted. Some sources said two of those in the rickshaw were civilians traveling with three militants.

A statement Thursday from the U.S. Africa Command said the strike was carried out by the U.S. military “in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.” The statement said the strike killed four terrorists and no civilians.

On Tuesday, local residents in the region reported another airstrike that destroyed an al-Shabab training camp in the nearby town of Jilib. That airstrike, also confirmed by U.S. Africa Command, killed three militants.

The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes against al-Shabab and Islamic State militants in support of Somalia’s federal government.

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U.S. military denies Al-Shabaab killed its soldier in Somalia

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MOGADISHU, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — The United States military confirmed Tuesday no American soldier was killed or injured in southern Somalia as claimed by the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabaab.

The U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which oversees American troops on the continent, dismissed the report as incorrect that the insurgents killed the American soldier on the outskirts of Kismayo during a gun fight early Tuesday.

“We are aware of the reports, but they are incorrect. No U.S military were killed or injured in Somalia, as alleged in the reports,” Africom spokesperson Samantha Reho told Xinhua.

The militants through their radio station, Andalus had reported that the American soldier was killed in a gun battle that took place outside Kismayo town on Tuesday morning.

The allegations came amid intensified security operation by the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) backed by Somalia National Army (SNA) on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in the Lower Shabelle region, destroying several militant bases, checkpoints and explosives including an FM station run by Al-Shabaab.

The allied forces have ramped up offensives against the militants as the African Union forces continue with the drawdown which started with 500 troops last December.

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Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children

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Jason Burke

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia are extorting huge sums from starving communities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of children as soldiers and suicide bombers as the terror group endures financial pressures and an apparent crisis of morale.

Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews conducted by the Guardian with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.

Systematic human rights abuses on a par with those committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are being conducted by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants as the west largely looks away because most analysts do not see the group as posing a threat to Europe, the UK or the US.

The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.

In one 2017 incident investigated by the Guardian, a man was stoned to death for adultery. In another, four men and a 16-year-old boy were shot dead by a firing squad after being accused of spying for the Somali authorities. In a third, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were killed in a public square after being found guilty by a religious court of homosexuality.

Last year at least five people were lashed publicly after being accused of “immoral or improper behaviour”. They included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who were given 100 lashes each for “fornication”.

UN officials said they had received reports of stonings for adultery. The former al-Shabaab leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who defected in 2013, described the group’s aim as “Islamic government without the interference of the western powers in Somalia”.

Al-Shabaab, which once controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, was forced to retreat to rural areas by a military force drawn from regional armies seven years ago. Since then it has proved resilient, and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world, but appears to be suffering a crisis of morale and financial pressure, prompting the drive to squeeze revenue out of poor rural communities.

One recent defector from central Somalia told government interrogators that the group forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque”. Another said that al-Shabaab’s “finance ministry” – part of the extensive parallel government it has set up – is “hated”.

Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both

The former mid-ranking commander, who defected four months ago, described how wells were taxed at $20,000 (£14,000) per month and a fee of $3.50 levied at water holes for every camel drinking there. One small town in Bai province was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth $500, and several thousand goats, he said.

In addition, trucks using roads in territory controlled by al-Shabaab have to pay $1,800 each trip. Five percent of all land sales is taken as tax, and arbitrary levies of up to $100,000 imposed on communities for “educational purposes”, the defector said. There is also evidence that the movement is suffering from manpower shortages.

A third defector said al-Shabaab now insisted that all male children attend its boarding schools from the age of about eight. The children train as fighters and join fighting units in their mid-teens.

“By that age they are fully indoctrinated. They are no longer under the influence of their parents,” said Mohamed Mubarak, research director of the Horn Institute for Security and Strategic Policy thinktank.

According to Somali authorities, troops stormed a school run by al-Shabaab in January and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits to be “brainwashed” to be suicide bombers. “Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both,” the defector said.

Al-Shabaab has also told people they will be punished – possibly put to death as spies – if they have any contact with humanitarian agencies.

Somalia has been hit by a series of droughts, and only a massive aid effort averted the deaths of hundreds of thousands last year.

A new military campaign launched by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and supported by the US has seen intensive drone strikes on al-Shabaab targets, putting the militants under significant pressure. Fears of spies have led to a series of internal purges. Suspected agents are jailed and brutally tortured.

Al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters . Everyone is scared of them

“Distrust is so high that when they go into battle, everyone is afraid of being shot in the back by his comrade,” one of the defectors said. “When soldiers get leave, half come back. Al-Shabaab now send patrols to collect people who have fled home. They stay in jail until they agree to rejoin.”

Abdirahman Mohamed Hussein, a government official overseeing humanitarian aid in southern central Somalia, told the Guardian that extremists used local populations as human shields. “They do not want people to move out because they are worried that there could be an airstrike if the civilians leave,” Hussein said.

Al-Shabaab also imposes tight restrictions on media, the defectors said. “Most people only listen to al-Shabaab radio stations or get news from al-Shabaab lectures which go on for hours and which cover religion and which all must attend,” one said. Another said some people risked harsh punishments to listen in secret toVoice of America and the BBC.

“Life is really tough in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. There is no food, no aid and children are being taken,” said Mubarak, the thinktank director. “Al-Shabaab are still trying to portray themselves as defenders of Somali identity. The message has a lot of sympathy but is not translating into active support.”

The draconian punishment, seizures, taxes and abductions run counter to the strategic guidance issued by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for affiliates of the veteran group to build consensus and support among local communities. Their practices do, however, recall those of Isis.

Al-Shabaab also manipulates rivalries between clans and tribes, and benefits from the failures of local authorities to provide basic services. Several interviewees said they preferred using al-Shabaab’s justice system, and that the group had brought security.

In once case in May last year, two clan elders in Beledweyne in Hiran region agreed to seek al-Shabaab justice to settle a case of rape. The attacker was found guilty and stoned to death.

“We decided to go to the al-Shabaab court because the judge rules under the Islamic law and there is no nepotism and corruption,” said Abdurahman Guled Nur, a relative of the rape victim, in a telephone interview. “If we went to a government court, there would be no justice because the rapist could have paid some cash to the court and he would be freed.”

Mohamed Hussein, a farmer in Barire, a town 40 miles south of Mogadishu that has seen fierce fighting, returned home when al-Shabaab took control of the area in early October. “When the government soldiers were here, there was looting, illegal roadblocks and killing,” he said. “But al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters. The Islamic court gives harsh sentences for the criminals, so everyone is scared of them. That way we are in peace under al-Shabaab. If you do not have any issue with al-Shabaab, they leave you alone.”

Additional reporting by Abdalle Mumin

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