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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Britain Re-Opens Embassy in Somalia

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, right, shakes hands with
Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, at the opening of the newly built
British Embassy in the Somali capital Mogadishu, Apr. 25, 2013.
Roopa Gogineni

April 25, 2013
British Foreign Secretary William Hague flew to Mogadishu on Thursday to re-open the British Embassy - making his country the first Western nation to resume a permanent diplomatic presence in Somalia in 22 years.

The British Embassy in central Mogadishu was forced to shut its doors in 1991 after Mohamed Siad Barre's government collapsed and Somalia plunged into chronic civil war.

Twenty-two years later, British diplomats are planning a return to Mogadishu. Foreign Secretary William Hague attended a flag-raising ceremony at the site of a new embassy Thursday.

“I said we would open an embassy as soon as the security situation permitted it,"Hague said. "So it is a sign of confidence in the future that we are opening it.”

The reopening follows major strides made by African Union forces in securing the capital city from al-Shabab militants.

But the peace is tenuous. Just last week al-Shabab attacked a Mogadishu courthouse, killing or wounding dozens of people.
The new embassy sits in the airport compound behind mortar-proof sandbags and heavily guarded by African Union troops.

Hague expects this location to be temporary. "I hope over time this will be an embassy that is able to move into the city itself," he said.

Matt Baugh, the first British ambassador to Somalia in 21 years, was appointed last February but has been based in neighboring Kenya.

The Foreign Office is expected to soon announce a new ambassador to take up post in Mogadishu when the embassy becomes fully operational in late July.

Other nations are expected to follow the British Embassy's move from Nairobi to Mogadishu. Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia have already reopened their embassies in the Somali capital.

On May 7, London will host its second international conference to coordinate the stabilization of Somalia. Prime Minister David Cameron has prioritized Somalia in his role as president of the G8.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

UNICEF says genital mutilation on decline in Somalia

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Attitudes in Somalia toward a practice that critics decry as torture may be changing, as new data released by the U.N. children's agency on Tuesday showed that female genital mutilation among children in northern Somalia is on the decline.

The survey released by UNICEF and the governments of Somaliland and Puntland found that 25 per cent of girls from the ages of 1 to 14 years old have undergone the practice, compared with 99 per cent of women in those regions.

UNICEF has been working with community and religious leaders in northern Somalia to try to change attitudes toward female genital mutilation. Sheema Sen Gupta, the chief of child protection for UNICEF in Somalia, said that 28 communities in Somaliland have declared an end to the practice, and UNICEF hopes to have that number up to 60 by the end of this year.

"If you ask the average Somali woman why they practice FGM now, they will tell you it's for religious reasons. But it's not religious because FGM predates Islam," Gupta said.

In December the U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution calling for a global ban on female genital mutilation, a centuries-old practice stemming from the belief that circumcising girls controls women's sexuality and enhances fertility. It has also been linked to religious and cultural practices, although Muslim and Christian leaders have spoken out against it.

"When religious leaders are able to come out and say this is not a religious practice, then people start listening," said UNICEF chief Gupta.

Female genital mutilation is commonplace in 28 countries in Africa as well as in Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and among certain ethnic groups in South America, according to Amnesty International. But the issue is a worldwide concern because it is also practiced by immigrants in diaspora communities.

The U.N. said in 2010 that about 70 million girls and women had undergone the procedure, and the World Health Organization said about 6,000 girls were circumcised every day.

Aside from religious reasons, Somali women say that they choose female genital mutilation for their daughters so that they are more eligible for marriage, said Gupta.

"Even the women who are educated, including Somali women living in the U.K., for example, when we talk to them and try to understand why they practice FGM they say, 'My daughter is not going to be marriageable if she is not circumcised,"' Gupta said. "So the social pressures are such, the traditional norms are such, that even when people know that it's painful, it's barbaric, etc., people are saying, 'Can my daughter be married?"'

But Gupta said that when she talks to Somali men and asks if a woman should be circumcised, the men say they don't know and that the women say it needs to be done.

The survey data released Tuesday is only the fourth multiple-indicator cluster survey to be carried out in Somalia, a notoriously difficult place to gather solid information over the last 20 years.

The survey also found that the literacy rate among women in northern Somalia is on the rise, as is school attendance. Access to quality drinking water is also up.

However, Susannah Price, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, said that new information showing a low number of children being vaccinated was "depressing," and it showed more work needs to be done.

The future does appear brighter for reducing the number of girls subjected to female genital mutilation, said Gupta. She noted that Somalia's new constitution, passed last year, bans the practice. Al-Shabab, the militant group that controls large parts of south-central Somalia, also bans it, she said.

"I think we've made a dent and I think, for us, I think there's going to be quite a bit of progress from now on," Gupta said.

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Somalia's Shabaab 'a serious threat'

Nairobi - A spectacular attack on Sunday by Shabaab Islamists in Mogadishu, unprecedented in Somalia in terms of its operational complexity, has enabled the extremists to show they remain a serious threat.

Though they are widely described as severely weakened, the attack by the al-Qaeda linked militants shows that the authorities have not restored security to Mogadishu as they like to claim.

Nine assailants, wearing police or army uniforms and likely all wearing explosive belts, attacked the main courthouse in the Somali capital.

Three of them blew themselves up to clear the way for the six others, who took hostages and started battling the Somali and African Union troops guarding the courthouse. The gunfight lasted for several hours.

Thirty minutes into the attack, as military reinforcements were arriving and the wounded were being evacuated, a car bomb was detonated in the zone.

The attack, which left at least 34 people dead, is the bloodiest since October 2011, when more than 80 people were killed some two months after the Shabaab abandoned fixed positions in Mogadishu.

Experts said the modus operandi of Sunday's attack is one frequently seen in Afghanistan, but so far unprecedented in Somalia.

"The combined use of suicide bombers, light weapons and car bombs is a first in Somalia," explained a military source in the African Union force (Amisom), who, like all the other sources questioned, asked to remain anonymous.

"There has not been any attack of this level of complexity in Mogadishu. It's a first," confirmed a regional security expert.

Significant efforts

A convoy from the Turkish Red Crescent was also hit by a car bomb on Sunday. According to the regional security expert there is no evidence the Turks were targeted. The car bomb may rather have been destined for the attack on the courthouse.

This "spectacular attack" demonstrates on the part of Somalia's Islamists "a will to regain a foothold in Mogadishu and to prove to the outside world that the situation in Mogadishu is not so good, despite the line often repeated by the president and the prime minister over the past few months", the Amisom source said.

The Shabaab want to "create a threatening climate and show that they're not finished yet", though often described as a spent force, the source added.

The Amisom source went on to say that Sunday's operation probably took four months of "significant efforts" and that it was likely prepared by Amniat, the Shabaab’s intelligence cell, which has agents operating in Mogadishu.

According to the expert questioned by AFP, "over the past month or two the Shabaab have been regaining strength."

He cited a recent spate of attacks on Kismayo, one of the final bastions of the Shabaab that they abandoned at the end of September.

"It seems that they got a new lease of life after the failure of the French commando operation [in January, aimed at freeing a French intelligence agent taken hostage]" and from the announcement of the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.

This type of attack that the Afghan Taliban is known for would seem to confirm the increasing presence in Shabaab ranks of fighters who have operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The increasing sophistication of the explosive devices used by the Shabaab, notably the appearance a few months ago of remote-controlled bombs, would tend to confirm this hypothesis.

State of shock

At least one Pakistani jihadi has been reported in the Shabaab ranks in the past few months, one of the analysts questioned said.

Sunday's attack did not give the Shabaab any tactical advantage but it enabled the Islamists to undermine the impression - both locally and internationally - that the new administration and Somali armed forces are up to the task of ensuring security.

"The population [of Mogadishu] - and probably the security forces as well - are in a state of shock," said another analyst.

But he said only time will tell whether this attack represents a new tactic for the Shabaab, or whether it is a one-off.

One of his colleagues said that Mogadishu is "tremendously more secure than it was" and said that Somali soldiers, backed by Amisom forces, managed to limit the damage on Sunday.

But the military source with Amisom said: "If something like this is repeated, questions will be asked" on infiltration and on the ability of the Somali forces really to maintain security.

"This is clearly a show of force" on the part of the Shabaab, even if "from a military point of view they are really in a critical situation," one analyst said.

"It is indeed difficult to organise this sort of attack, but it is still easier than holding a military front," the expert said.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Brits warned to leave Somalia: Terrorist attack is ‘imminent’

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office believes terrorists are in the final stages of planning attacks in the capital Mogadishu.

Officials have warned against all travel to every part of the war-torn country.

They advised all expat Brits to leave, adding there is a specific threat to Westerners in the autonomous region of Somaliland.

A spokesman for the FCO said: “We have amended our travel advice for Somalia.

“Our advice makes clear that there continues to be a big threat from terrorism and that the FCO believes that terrorists are in the final stages of planning attacks in Mogadishu.”

The high threat from terrorism includes kidnapping. There is no British representation in any part of Somalia and the FCO said it is unable to provide consular assistance there.

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