Mogadishu (AFP) – A former top commander from Somalia's Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab rebels, Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, called on his former comrades Tuesday to follow his lead and surrender to the country's internationally-backed government.
"I call on and encourage all my friends to seek out a peaceful way of resolving all conflicts and towards reconciliation, as … Al-Shebab is now in total collapse," Hersi said in his first public appearance since his surrender last month.
Hersi, who was the subject of a $3 million bounty under the US State Department's "Rewards for Justice" programme, spoke to reporters from the information ministry in Mogadishu, where he appeared without guards.
It is not clear if Hersi — described as a former Shebab intelligence chief — will face trial, but Somalia's government said in a statement that it had offered surrendering militants the "opportunity to reintegrate with Somali society, and guarantees their safety".
It added that it hoped Hersi's surrender would "inspire others to follow his example and join the peace process."
The Shebab are fighting to overthrow Somalia's internationally-backed government, but have also carried out a string of revenge attacks in neighbouring nations.
Hersi surrendered in late December in the southern Gedo region, where Somalia borders Kenya and Ethiopia.
He was reportedly once close to former Shehab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed by a US air strike in September. But Hersi suggested he was among a group of commanders who had already fallen out with Godane prior to his death — some of whom were killed in a purge.
"There were a number of us who opposed the leadership's approach and its flawed doctrine," Hersi said.
He said current Shebab leadership, under Godane's successor Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah, is carrying out a "distorted form of the holy jihad, which has resulted in countless innocent Somali citizens being killed."
Hersi also said his appearance on Tuesday in public was to put to rest those who said he had been tortured in government custody, or had been handed over to "foreign countries".