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Monday, September 7, 2009

Aweys: No Price is too High for 'Liberty'

The leader of a Somali rebel group on Saturday said his militia will continue to fight the Somali government and the African Union peacekeepers no matter how high the civilian casualty reaches. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the hard-line leader of the Islamist group Hizbul-Islam, said his fighters will use all forms of resistance, including suicide attacks against his enemy.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with the VOA, Aweys, who’s on the US and UN list of terrorist associates, also discussed the daring escape of a Frenchman held by his group, the often rocky relationship between his group and its main rival Al-Shabaab, and the suffering of the civilian population as a result of the continued fighting in and around Mogadishu.

“It’s true that the oppressed one sustains the brunt of the damage,” he stated. “But the oppressed should not allow the enemy to settle on its land---at any cost.”

Aweys is widely credited to galvanizing and uniting a timid Islamist opposition. More than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Mogadishu since he returned from his exile in Eritrea in early May. Some 10,000 were also injured and more than half a million people fled their homes.

Despite the magnitude of the suffering, Aweys defiantly said: “No price is too high to pay for the sake of liberty.” He also ruled out of rumored secret talks between him and President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a formr ally.

“That’s what the enemy would like to hear,” he said in a sarcastic tone.

War tactics

brunt of the civilian casualty stems from mortar shelling by the Islamist opposition and counter shelling by the African Union peacekeepers, known as AMISOMThe . Human rights groups critcized Hizbul-Islam and other rebel groups of routinely firing mortars from within the civilian population, provoking a response from AMISOM.

Aweys, a former army colonel, defended this tactic.

“The Mujahid [holy warrior] is like a fish,” he said. “The population is his water…that’s the nature of resistances. The population provides a shield. The resistance is partof the population.”

French hostages

One of two French military advisors who were kidnapped on July 14 by militia linked to Hizbul-Islam escaped on August 26. Marc Aubriere, 40, said he sneaked out of his captors in a daring and dramatic escape.

Many Somalis believe that an unknown sum of cash was exchanged. In a noticeably demurred tone, Aweys declined to comment on the circumstances that led to Aubriere’s escape. Asked about the whereabouts of the second man, Aweys remarked in a thinly veiled reference to the rival group Al-Shabaab:

“He’ll talk for himself, or his captors will talk about it.”

Still, Aweys admitted of having differences with Al-Shabaab with respect to administration, but he praised the group as standard bearers for the “holy war against a common enemy.”

Suicide attacks

Unlike Al-Shabaab, Hizbul-Islam has not carried out a known suicide attack against the Somali government or AMISOM forces. Still, Aweys strongly defended the use of suicide attacks as a crucial part of a struggle against his enemy.

“An occupied, weak nation defends itself with whatever is in its disposal,” he said. In fact, he said, suicide attacks are global and effective. He cited Pearl Harbor as a glaring example.

What’s next for Aweys?

Aweys, believed to be his late 60s, is a career fighter. As a senior officer in the once powerful Somali army, Aweys participated in the border wars with Ethiopia in the 70s. But since the civil war in Somalia in 1991, he led Somalia’s best known militant Islamist group: Al-Itihad al-Islami. This group, branded by the US as terrorist organization, has a bloody history
spanning over a decade of conflicts in many parts of Somalia.

Asked if it he would consider reversing the course and giving the peace a chance, Aweys quipped: “The celebrated heroes of the world are career fighters.” Among others, he cited George Washington and Winston Churchill.

The enemy, he said, wants to destroy potential heroes,