Somali kids urged to join jihad
Nairobi - Hardline Somali Islamists are seeking to recruit school children in the southern port city of Kismayu to join a "holy war" against the anarchic nation's fragile government and its allies, parents and teachers said.
Witnesses said hundreds of pupils and their teachers were ordered to attend a meeting called by al-Shabaab rebels who have been fighting the government for three years and control large swathes of southern and central Somalia.
"We ask the young generation to participate in the holy war taking place on their soil," Sheikh Hassan Yacqub Ali, a senior al-Shabaab officer, told the crowd on Sunday.
"You, the students, are the backbone of Somali society and tomorrow's leaders."
Western security agencies say the Horn of Africa nation, which has lacked an effective government for nearly two decades, is a breeding ground for extremism and foreign jihadists plotting attacks on the region.
Yacqub said Kenya and other Christian governments neighbouring Somalia were bent on attacking Islam.
Uganda and Burundi have sent more than 5 000 peacekeepers to bolster the poorly equipped and motivated government troops. Kenya says it has trained thousands of Somali troops.
"I am sure you will be the ones defending the Islamic administration," Yacqub told the potential recruits.
Parents said the insurgents were targeting all high school and primary level students in Class 5 - or about 13 years old - or above in the al-Shabaab-controlled city.
"We are concerned our kids will drop out of school," Fatuma Ali Guled, a mother of two pupils, told Reuters.
Al-Shabaab claims links to al-Qaeda and has imposed a strict version of shari’ah law on the war-weary population in areas they control, banning music and school bells.
Yacqub told the school children they would be attending seminars on Islam later this month instead of going on holiday. One headteacher said it was the first time al-Shabaab had approached the city's schools to actively recruit youngsters.
The Western backed government and some human rights groups accuse al-Shabaab and another rebel group, Hizbul Islam, of copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, using suicide bombers to devastating effect.
"Somalia is now like Afghanistan... our society must be united and reject the al- Qaeda influence. Al-Shabaab is looking to manipulate the young generation," Somalia's Interior State Minister Abdi Rashid Mohamed Hiddig told Reuters.
In the last week, more than 40 people have been killed in three separate mosque attacks, a new phenomenon that some residents suspect could be the result of infighting between the two insurgent groups.