Somali Pirates Flee Stronghold as Islamic Army Enters

Islamists says they intend to end piracy and free pirates' hostages.

May 3, 2010, 3:20 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya May 3, 2010— -- Somalia's pirates fled their stronghold of Harardhere after an army of Islamic militants entered the city, promising to end piracy and free the pirates' hostages.

The pirate town had been threatened by the army of Al-Shabaab militants, and rather than falling to Shabaab, the town elders reportedly invited a rival group called Hizbul Islam to come into the town and offer them "protection" from Shabaab.

The Associate Press reports that Hizbul Islam incursion on Sunday sent the pirates "fleeing with big screen TVs piled into luxury cars bought with millions of dollars of ransom money."

The report also claims that Hizbul Islam is promising to eliminate piracy in the town and free all foreign hostages.

But there are other reports that the combination of the pirate money and encroaching on Al Shabaab territory are what made Harardhere so attractive to Hizbul Islam.

The rampant piracy of the last few years has yet to be directly tied to the network of Islamic fighters that has been classified by Washington and other western countries as terrorists.

For a long time the two remained separate, divided as much by geography as by ideology. The two have had an uneasy co-existence. While there's little evidence the Islamists are directly involved with piracy, Puntland's Director General Abdiwahid Mohamed Hersi told ABC News that some of the millions of dollars in pirate ransoms end up in Shabaab's hands.

"The pirates pay Shabaab 'taxes' of up to $100,000 on ransom monies," Abdiwahid Mohamed Hersi told ABC News during a recent trip to Somalia.

Shabaab is Somalia's largest Islamist group, and has pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda along with collaborating with operatives from Afghanistan and Yemen to fight to defeat the country's weak transitional government. Shabaab wants to rule Somalia under strict sharia law.

Hizbul Islam also wants sharia law, but is considered slightly more moderate than its rival. At one time the two worked together, but they split apart last year and the feud has grown increasingly nasty.

In less than 48 hours there have been two bombings of mosques in Shabaab-controlled areas. The first occurred Saturday inside Mogadishu's crowded Bakara market, while worshippers were waiting for noon prayers. At least one high-level Shabaab operative was killed in the blast along with more than 45 other people, according to African Union officials. A mosque in the southern port city of Kismayo, the heart of Shabaab territory, was hit last night killing two people.

Shabaab has blamed "foreign security companies" for the bombings. No-one has claimed responsibility, but it is believed that Hizbul Islam may have played a role in the attacks.

The latest tension between the militant groups comes as the Somali government plans to launch an offensive against Shabaab to take back control of Mogadishu. The current transitional government only controls a few miles of the capital city, and Somalia has not had a functioning federal government in 20 years.

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