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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Canadian guerrilla

Armed with assault rifles and machine guns mounted on pickup trucks, the Horn of Africa's latest liberation group began fighting this summer in the semidesert formerly known as British Somaliland.

They call themselves the SSC and their deputy leader is a sturdy, gray-haired former army officer named Colonel Ali Hassan Sabarey, who speaks English and studied business administration at college.

He is also a Canadian.

"I really miss the hockey," the former Toronto resident told the National Post in a phone interview. "I really miss that and I miss a lot of things. I miss the Eaton's Centre, I miss the downtown, I miss the community and I hope I will be back."

In the four months since Col. Sabarey, a former Seneca College student, and the SSC leader Suleiman Essa of Columbus, Ohio, arrived in the region, their militias have clashed repeatedly with Somaliland government forces.

"A number of people have lost their lives," said Mohammed Omar, below, the Foreign Minister of Somaliland. He said the SSC was trying to undermine security in Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland and Ethiopia.

"It is very unfortunate to know that some of the people who are causing harm to our security, or attempting to endanger our security, are actually coming from the United States or from Canada," the Foreign Minister said.

"I would describe those leaders who are waging war against Somaliland, we call them people who have committed war crimes. They simply attacked and killed citizens, therefore we would like to take them into justice in Somaliland."

The SSC, which derives its name from the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions it represents, is a product of the almost total collapse of Somalia, one of the most lawless, chaotic and heavily armed places on the planet.

Somalia is also one of Canada's top sources of refugees. About 150,000 ethnic Somalis live in Canada, according to government figures. But some have returned to take up leadership positions in their troubled homeland.

Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke of Ottawa served as prime minister of Somalia's fragile UN-backed Transitional Federal Government until he resigned on Tuesday. A handful of young Toronto men has also joined Somalia's version of the Taliban, Al-Shabab.

And there is Col. Sabarey.

"He's a very easy-going, humble kind of guy," said Abdi Saleban of Ottawa, who attended a conference in Nairobi last year that founded the SSC and made Col. Sabarey its deputy leader. "He has a military background."

The colonel comes from Las Anod, in northern Somalia, his associates said. He served in the Somali National Army during the reign of military dictator Siad Barre. He left the country in 1990 to study in the United States and came to Canada in 1991, he said.

That same year, northern Somalia broke away from the south. The Somali National Movement, formed by exiles in London, declared independence from southern Somalia. It called the new northern republic Somaliland.

Roughly the size of England, Somaliland borders Somalia's Puntland region, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the strategic Gulf of Aden. With its capital in Hargeisa, it has a population of 3.5 million and an economy largely based on livestock exports to Saudi Arabia. Relative to the turmoil in southern Somalia, it is peaceful.

"Somaliland is actually a flourishing democracy," Foreign Minister Omar said. "We have just had a presidential election which has been declared a free and fair election by the international community. We also have a thriving society, including the economy."

But almost 20 years after declaring independence, the breakaway region is not widely recognized internationally. Canada does not formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland.

Neither do clan leaders in the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions that are nominally part of Somaliland accept secession. They want to remain part of Somalia. Experts believe the issue is partly rooted in clan differences between the Isaaq-dominated Somaliland government and the SSC, which is made up of Daroods.

The issue came to a head in 2007, when Somaliland forces moved into Las Anod, the administrative capital of the Sool region. Clan leaders responded with a declaration calling for "all necessary sacrifices in terms of life and resources to be put at the disposal of the liberation struggle."

"Three years ago, they have forcefully occupied this territory, SSC territory and have violated the rights of the citizens," Col. Sabarey said. "Since then they killed many people, they forced so many people out of the country and within the country as refugees."

He said the Somaliland government had denied basic services such as health care, clean water and schools to the eastern regions. "Calling us war criminals, it's a false statement and they have attacked this territory and still they are here. They are attacking us."

In October 2009, hundreds of members of the Somali diaspora, many from North America and Europe, gathered in the Kenyan capital and selected Col. Sabarey and Mr. Essa to lead the SSC and recruit a militia force.

"You know, when you are a place where there is no government, to save your people and save yourself you have to at least bring some power to your people, and that is exactly what they are doing there," said Mr. Saleban.

Skirmishes between the SSC and Somaliland forces began shortly after the two leaders returned to the region in May. In June, the United Nations reported that thousands had been displaced by the fighting.

The Somaliland Times reported on July 24 the SSC had attacked Somaliland forces in Widh Widh. A Somaliland soldier was killed and 20 SSC fighters were injured, while another 10 were

taken prisoner, it reported. Osman Hassan, an executive of the diaspora organization that helped elect Col. Sabarey to his position, said the fighting had been minimal. And he said some SSC supporters are not happy about that.

"There have been a number of encounters with the Somaliland militias and the SSC, but not to the extent that we would have liked," said Mr. Hassan, a Geneva-based executive committee member of the Northern Somali Unionist Movement.

"They were supposed to really fight, you know, guerrilla war, hit and run. The Somaliland militias are not that strong. I mean, most of them are unpaid and they have a lot of deserters. So it's not as though we are facing the USA army in Iraq," he said.

"To be honest with you, I have not been impressed, neither with him nor with his leader," he said of Col. Sabarey and Mr. Essa. "They have been getting a lot of money, almost a half a million dollars, from the diaspora and most of it has actually been wasted. So we have been very unhappy with them.... So Ali Sabarey and Suleiman are, I think, on their way out."

Al Jazeera featured Col. Sabarey in a report broadcast in July. It was titled: "Somalia's newest armed group SSC threatens violent campaign." Footage showed young armed men standing at attention before Col. Sabarey.

The SSC fighters were shown driving a "technical," a pickup truck with a heavy gun mounted in the bed. The letters S-S-C were scrawled on the driver's door in red paint.

"Our ultimate goal is to make this area peaceful and prosperous and also seek a united Somalia," Col Sabarey, dressed in a military uniform, said in the broadcast. It did not mention he was Canadian, but Somalis in Toronto who saw the segment recognized him.

Commentary on Somali news websites ranges from supportive of the SSC cause to calling its leaders "blood-soaked warmongers" who should be arrested and handed over to Canadian and U.S. authorities.

In interviews, Col. Sabarey told the National Post that while he misses Canada, he did not hesitate to return to Africa. "I have to sacrifice. Sometimes you have to help your original community and you have to do what you have to do," he said.

"The people that say, 'They shouldn't go back to where they are born' ... I don't believe that. I believe I'm an ambassador from Canada. And wherever I am, I represent Canada."

Despite the uniforms and weapons, he said he would prefer to use the power of persuasion to make the Somaliland troops leave. "To force them would be the last resort. I'm a Canadian, I'm not that much good for fighting."

Source: National Post


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