Somalia’s government claimed Saturday that the al-Shabab extremist group has for the first time asked to open negotiations, amid a military offensive the government has described as “total war.”
There was no immediate statement by al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-affiliate that for well over a decade has carried out high-profile bombings in Somalia’s capital and controlled parts of the country’s central and southern regions, complicating efforts to rebuild the once-failed state after decades of conflict.
“Al-Shabab requested to open negotiations with the Somali government, but there are two groups within al-Shabab,” Deputy Defense Minister Abdifatah Kasim told journalists in Mogadishu. “The first part is foreigners, and the second part is local Somalis. Those locals have a chance to open up negotiations, but those foreigners who invaded our country have no right for talks. The only option is to return to where they are from.”
The deputy defense minister added that “for the Somalis, we are ready to receive them, for they are willing to surrender to the Somali government. They must follow the government’s instructions, reintegrate with their society, or face the Somali National Army in the front lines.”
This is the first time Somalia’s federal government has said that the extremist group has requested talks. In September, during a U.S. visit, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said “they are not willing to negotiate,” while stressing that “we are ready to talk to them” and have sent messages about it.
Al-Shabab numbers several thousand fighters, including an unknown number of foreigners, both from regional countries like neighboring Kenya and beyond. The extremists have carried out several high-profile attacks over the years in Kenya, including in the capital, Nairobi, and at a military base used by the U.S.
Al-Shabab has long sought to impose strict Islamic law in Somalia and seeks the withdrawal of foreign troops operating in the Horn of Africa country. The United States has a military presence in Somalia to combat the extremists, along with Turkey and a multinational African Union force.
Somalia’s president after being elected last year launched a military offensive against al-Shabab with the support of some local militias that have regained control of some communities from the extremists. The president in a New Year’s address vowed to eliminate al-Shabab this year.
The extremists, under pressure as the government seeks to squeeze its sources of financing, have lashed out. An October bombing at a busy intersection in Mogadishu killed at least 120 people, and a pair of bombings Wednesday in a region at the heart of the government offensive killed at least 35 people.