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Fear of Al Shabab squeezes African port town

Signs of force on display following US SEALs raid

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The Al Shabab stronghold of Barawe, a coastal town in Somalia where US Navy SEALs came ashore in a failed raid last weekend, is gripped by fear and tension as the insurgents ready for another attack and residents worry they will be accused of spying.

Foreign fighters and Somali members of Al Shabab have in recent years moved into the town, edged by red desert and emerald seas, as African Union peacekeeping troops and Somali government forces pushed the Islamic insurgent group from Somalia’s capital and other areas.

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Saturday’s predawn raid by the American commandoes was aimed at a Kenyan Al Shabab member named as a planner of the group’s terrorist attacks. Since the SEAL raid, more Al Shabab battle wagons — pickup trucks mounted with rifles or machine guns — can be seen prowling the streets of the town, residents say.

Most of the residents of Barawe, a town which has existed for more than five centuries, rely on fishing and small businesses for income. Al Shabab maintains strict control of the activities and life of local residents who are told to close shops and other businesses to attend the five daily Muslim prayers at mosques. The insurgents also require women to wear Islamic dress that covers the whole body except for the face or eyes.

Residents told the Associated Press by phone that after the SEAL raid on a seaside villa, Al Shabab fighters detained several people on suspicion of spying, an allegation that often leads to public executions without any meaningful judicial process.

‘‘We are really scared. Sounds like they think everyone is a spy,’’ said Noh, a resident who did not want to have his surname used out of fear of reprisals.

Barawe, which lies on Somalia’s southeast coast between Mogadishu and the Kenyan border, has been under the control of Al Shabab since 2009, when Ethiopian troops pulled out of southern and central Somalia. The militants named a mayor of the city, which is a militant training ground and economic hub.

A July report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia said that Al Shabab has a ‘‘suicide training school’’ near Barawe.

The town hosts the largest number of foreign fighters in Somalia, most often from Kenya, Yemen, and Sudan. In September 2012, militants publicly executed two men they accused of spying for African Union forces. In February the bodies of two beheaded men were found, probably killed by militants who suspected them of having links with the government, the UN report said.

Barawe’s port is a moneymaker for the insurgent group, used by ships bringing in illegal weapons and shipping out charcoal — between 600,000 and 1 million sacks per month, according to a UN estimate. Each sack is charged a $2 tax, netting between $1.2 million and $2 million a month for Al Shabab.

Since the group lost control of the port city of Kismayo, the Barawe income and taxes provide an important economic base for Al Shabab, which provides no social services to residents. The fighters have been able to maintain control of the town and its crumbling, arched buildings because the African Union and Somali government forces are too thinly spread to try to invade.

The Somali government and AMISOM, the acronym of the AU peacekeeping mission whose forces currently number 17,000, have repeatedly asked the United Nations for authorization and funding of more troops and attack helicopters, so far to no avail.

In September 2009 a SEAL raid in Barawe killed six people, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the most-wanted Al Qaeda operatives in the region and an alleged plotter of the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Saturday’s SEAL raid occurred 20 years after the ‘‘Black Hawk Down’’ battle in Mogadishu in which a mission to capture Somali warlords went awry after militiamen shot down two US helicopters.

Eighteen US soldiers were killed in the battle, which marked the beginning of the end of that US military mission to bring stability to the Horn of Africa nation.

In 1991, warlords overthrew a longtime dictator and turned on each other, plunging Somalia into chaos.

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