* Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed Sharif narrowly escaped death Tuesday when a convoy in which he was travelling was ambushed by Al Shabaab terrorists.
Reuters is reporting that Sheikh Sharif’s convoy was ambushed as he made an attempt to tour a newly captured territory of Elasha Town, some 18 miles from the Somali capital Mogadishu. A Reuters photographer travelling with the president was quoted as saying that the Somali leader was making a rare overland trip outside Mogadishu when Al Shabaab struck the convoy.
The attack split the presidential convoy forcing the armoured cars to scatter in different directions. Cars belonging to several African Union peacekeepers were repeatedly hit by bullets but amazingly no one was reported to have been injured. Sheikh Sharif was trying to reach the former rebel stronghold of Afgoye, northwest of Mogadishu which was recently captured by Somali and AU forces.
A firefight that ensued after the convoy was ambushed lasted about 30 minutes and forced the AU to fire shells to subdue the attack. According to the Reuters photographer, this response from the AU forces might have greatly helped save the life of the Somali leader. He added that the armoured vehicle carrying President Sharif sped off as fighting broke out.
A spokesman for the AMISOM peacekeepers confirmed the ambush. The ambush underscored the ease at which Al-Shabaab, which merged with al Qaeda earlier this year, are able to launch hit-and-run attacks in areas they have vacated. It has in the last nine months surrendered territory under military pressure in and around Mogadishu and in parts of southern and central Somalia where they are battling Ethiopian and Kenyan forces.
On Tuesday, Kenyan battleships patrolling off the southern port city of Kismayu struck Al-Shabaab positions in the city after the rebels fired anti-aircraft guns at them. “Our ships were fired at by onshore elements, so they fired back at rebel targets around the port,” Kenya’s military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna told Reuters.
Kismayu is the nerve-centre of al Shabaab’s southern operations and their last main bastion after the fall of Afgoye. Residents said the warships moved away after the morning bombardment, but returned later to attack militants again. “We have not seen warships come that close before and fire on Kismayu,” said resident Saleh Omar by telephone.
Asked if the strikes were a precursor to a long-anticipated assault on Kismayu, Oguna said: “Kismayu has remained an area of interest for the international effort to stabilise Somalia.” African Union and Somali government troops captured Afgoye on Friday and then secured an aid corridor linking the town to Mogadishu over the weekend, wresting control of a strip of land believed to hold around 400,000 people displaced by conflict.
Al-Shabaab said they had pulled out of the Afgoye corridor in a tactical retreat, but threatened to strike back. “If the government controls the Afgoye corridor, then President Sharif should be able to pass there peacefully,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al-Shabaab’s spokesman for military operations, told Reuters.
Al-Shabab once controlled most of southern and central Somalia but has steadily lost ground in an offensive by AU, Somali, Kenyan and Ethiopian forces. Reports from southern Somalia on Monday indicated that Al-Shabab leaders were mobilizing fighters in Kismayo and other locations.