Despite ongoing and often tricky efforts to end the civil war that since 1991 has turned Somalia into a worn-out and destitute failed state, heavy clashes have recently erupted between warlords and Islamist extremists in the capital, Mogadishu.
The fighting, which has involved indiscriminate barrages of mortar and anti- aircraft fire leveled point blank across the city, represents the worst violence in almost a decade and is bad news for a region already suffering from the ravages of acute drought.
Clans traditionally at war with one another are uniting to fight the Islamists, whom they call terrorists, but the Islamists say they can bring order to a lawless state that has not had a central government for 16 years. And while the renewed conflict has been restricted largely to Mogadishu, it is proving detrimental to the overall peace process, the political survival of the country's fragile United Nations-backed transitional government, and critical humanitarian operations.
"You feel that one is just beginning to make some good progress against all odds, when something like this happens," observed one Nairobi-based official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan during the mid-'90s, the Islamists have declared that they are determined to end the current lawlessness but also place Somalia under strict sharia or Islamic law. They have accused the warlords of being supported by "non-Muslim foreigners," implying the US anti-terrorist task force stationed in neighboring Djibouti.
The warlords, who have formed a coalition called the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism," claim that the Islamists are behind many recent targeted assassinations of prominent figures, particularly those who have argued in favor of an international peacekeeping force, which the fundamentalists are dead-set against.
Last year, a country director of the Geneva-based War-Torn Societies Project (WSP), who was heavily involved in promoting peace-building initiatives between the different rival groups, was assassinated in what international aid workers and diplomatsmaintain was clearly because of his links with outside organizations.
The warlords also accuse the Islamists of cultivating close links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), terror-related groups have taken advantage of Somalia's collapse to attack neighboring countries as well as transit agents and material.
"The country is a refuge for the Al Qaeda team that bombed a Kenyan resort in 2002 and tried to down an Israeli aircraft in 2003," according to a December 2005 ICG report. The organization further asserts that the Islamists have been behind the murders of Somalis and foreigners alike since 2003.
The fighting has raised considerable international concern about the protection of civilians and the ability of aid agencies to continue providing key humanitarian relief. Compounded by the drought, which is beginning to create dire famine conditions, including the loss of more than half the country's cattle and sheep, current insecurity is causing people to flee to safer areas, including northern Kenya, where the UN says more than 100,000 Somali refugees are living.
According to international aid groups, most of which operate out of neighboring Kenya because they consider it too dangerous to work full time inside Somalia, at least 70 people, mainly civilians, have been killed with hundreds more injured over the past two months.
"They don't call the Somali situation a complex emergency for nothing," notes Robert Malleta, a veteran American aid consultant based in the region."There are areas of southern Somalia which are very insecure. You have to know whom to trust. Effective aid depends very much on working with good local NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and civil society groups."
Particularly critical has been the situation in Baidoa, where Somalia's Transitional Federal Parliament (TFP) has been sitting since February in a bid to reconcile differences and reestablish some form of government. Unpaid local militia roam the town threatening and assaulting civilians and aid workers alike. Although local authorities have imposed a curfew, the UN has declared Baidoa off-limits to all its international staff.
On April 4, the international aid community appealed for $326 million to help thwart the onset of famine that threatens the lives of some 2.1 million out of Somalia's estimated 9 million people.
According to Christian Balslev-Olesen, the UN's acting humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, emergency relief is also needed to bolster current peace-building initiatives. "If we cannot deliver on the humanitarian situation, it's going to backfire on the political process," he says.