, MOGADISHU, Feb 12 – Somalia\’s Shabaab-led rebels rallied support after Friday prayers and vowed all-out war as the conflict-riven country braced for a huge nationwide government offensive to crush insurgents.
As residents poured out of the capital in recent days, Islamist fighters poured in to face off with newly-trained government forces backed by African Union troops ahead of the battle.
A skirmish that broke out early Friday when fighters from the Al Qaeda-inspired Shabaab movement opened fire on government troops, drawing heavy retaliatory shelling, left five civilians dead and 20 others wounded.
At the Nasreddin mosque in southern Mogadishu, Sheikh Muktar Robow Abu Mansur, a top military leader with the Shabaab, said his movement was ready to face an onslaught by the Western-backed government.
"You are aware of the recent indiscriminate shelling of the enemy against our people. This war is a religious obligation for all of us to go to and fight them," Robow told the crowd after prayers.
"The soldiers of Allah are now fully prepared to launch attacks to eliminate the enemy from the country," he said.
The Shabaab control around 80 percent of southern and central Somalia and since his election a year ago, President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and his administration have been pinned down in a small area of the capital.
"Our promise is to engage in all-out war against them. Are you going to be with us?," he shouted, rousing the crowd of faithful who roared back with a resounding "Yes".
Robow, whose group last month officially declared it was a component of Al Qaeda\’s global jihad, explained to his audience that their struggle was not simply to remove Sharif from power.
"All the mujahedeen in the country are ready to unite for this battle. This war does not only concern our country but the holy warriors will also assist our brothers fighting in Yemen, Afghanistan and Chechnya," he said.
Hundreds of people in the city of Baidoa, west of Mogadishu, also gathered after prayers in the stadium, chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and listening to speeches urging war against the government and its allies.
"Today we are here to show our determination in the current situation. The enemies of Allah have allied to fight but we are also united against them," Shabaab official Sheikh Ibrahim Ali told AFP.
In Elashabiyaha, a village overflowing with displaced people near Mogadishu, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, whose Hezb al-Islam movement is allied to the Shabaab, held a rally.
While the guessing game continued on the date of the great offensive\’s launch, tension mounted in Mogadishu as combatants on both sides took up their positions and the city centre continued to bleed its civilian population.
"The Shabaab militants and their allies fired on our forces near Florenza, in Bondhere district, and in the Shibis area this morning," Colonel Mohamed Ali, a senior government security officer, said.
"It was a kind of provocation but our forces defended their positions, responding with heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft weapons," he said, adding that two of his men were wounded.
Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu\’s ambulance services said the government troops\’ retaliatory fire killed civilians in residential areas.
"The crossfire and stray mortars hit civilian-populated areas in northern Mogadishu and our ambulance teams have collected five bodies and 20 other injured civilians," Muse told AFP.
President Sharif, a young Islamist cleric who fought the Ethiopian invasion, was described by Washington and others as Somalia\’s best hope for peace in years when he was elected a year ago.
But he failed to bring hardline Islamists back into the fold, and international military and financial support was initially sluggish.
Observers say the offensive, likely to be the largest military operation in Somalia in three years, is a make or break endeavour for Sharif\’s administration, which has been unable to assert its authority on the country.