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Somalia's fighters celebrate Al-Qaeda alliance


Gun-toting Shebab insurgents staged rallies across Somalia Monday to celebrate their group's recognition by Osama bin Laden's successor as a member of the Al-Qaeda network.

"The unification of Al-Shebab with Al-Qaeda breaks the hearts of the enemy," Shebab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told a crowd of several hundred in rebel-held Afgoye, just outside Somalia's war-torn capital Mogadishu.

Extremists chanting anti-Western slogans ordered people to attend the rallies, witnesses said.

"At least 600 people gathered carrying placards supporting the unification of the two groups -- people chanted God is great" said Abdikarin Adan, a witness.

"Businesses were shut after Shebab fighters in cars with loudspeakers ordered people to attend the demonstration," said Mohamed Sufi, another witness.

Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced in a video message posted on forums last week that Shebab fighters had joined ranks with the militant network.

Shebab insurgents, fighting to overthrow the weak Western-backed government in the war-torn Horn of Africa country, proclaimed their allegiance to then Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2009.

"Mujahideen fighters worldwide, I promise you that the unification is a sign of the return of a religious caliphate worldwide," Rage added.

Several demonstrations also took place across Shebab-held southern Somalia including the port city of Merka, where the extremist gunmen ordered people to shut down businesses to attend the rally.

"Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri has regional leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa," Rage added. "Here, where we are today, we will strengthen the unification of the mujahideen fighters."

Shebab fighters still control large parts of central and southern Somalia but are facing increasing pressure from regional forces, with Kenya in the far south, Ethiopia in the south and west, and African Union troops in Mogadishu.

Kenya army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said the rallies were a "forced demonstration."

Somalia's embattled government -- which controls only Mogadishu with 10,000 AU troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti -- repeated calls Monday for the lifting of a United Nations arms embargo so it can "defend the country."

"We ask all the young people that have been misled by Al-Shebab to stop working with them," the government statement added.

"The Somali government will not take lightly the danger from their official union and will put all its forces, as well as the general public, on the highest alert."

There are about 200 foreign fighters in Somalia with the Shebab, Britain's Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies said in a report earlier this month.

However, analysts have warned previously that Al-Qaeda faces significant challenges operating in Somalia, with its lack of resources, basic infrastructure and potential hostility from rival clan-based power structures.