NEWYORKTIMES… NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali officials acknowledged on Thursday that members of Somalia’s presidential guard had defected to the Shabab, the radical Islamist insurgent group that claimed responsibility for the recent bombings in Uganda that killed more than 70 people watching the final game of the World Cup.
The defection of some of the president’s best-trained men is the latest setback for Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government, which has lost important pieces of territory in the past few days. Insurgents are now 300 yards — a rifle shot away — from the presidential palace.
The Shabab gleefully introduced three former members of the presidential guard at a news conference in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on Wednesday. The soldiers said they quit working for the government because it was being protected by African Union peacekeepers, who they said were killing Somali civilians with indiscriminate shelling.
More than 6,000 African Union peacekeepers are in Mogadishu to help protect the government and stabilize Somalia, but they are coming under intensifying criticism for firing mortars and heavy guns into crowded neighborhoods. African Union officials have said that they are responding to enemy fire and that they try to avoid civilian casualties.
But the Shabab are exploiting the issue of heavy shelling in an attempt to turn the Somali public against the peacekeepers, who are from Uganda and Burundi (two mainly Christian countries, in contrast to Somalia, which is nearly all Muslim).
Shabab officials have also used the shelling as a rationale for bombing a nightclub and an outdoor gathering of fans in Uganda during the final game of the World Cup this month, in a synchronized attack that has put the entire region on high alert.
Somali government officials had initially denied that any of the presidential guard had defected. But on Thursday, Abdullahi Ali Anod, head of the presidential guard, told Somali radio stations: “The soldiers who joined the Shabab asked us permission to leave and visit their families, which they had not visited for so long, but later we were informed they defected.”
The United States has helped arm the Somali government forces and pay their salaries. But that has not stopped a stream of defectors — and American-bought weapons — from flowing to the Shabab, who have grown increasingly close to Al Qaeda.
The Shabab and their allies rule much of Somalia, with the transitional government controlling a small slice of Mogadishu. Government officials concede that if it were not for the African Union peacekeepers, the government would quickly collapse.
In Uganda on Thursday, police officials said 20 suspects who had been arrested in connection with the bombings had been released. Judith Nabakooba, a police spokeswoman, said that several suspects remained in custody and that Shabab and Qaeda “links are there, but we cannot confirm it.” She also said a Ugandan rebel group based in eastern Congo might have been involved.