NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- In a brazen show of power in Somalia's capital, Islamist rebels punished four men convicted of stealing cell phones and other items by cutting off a hand and a foot each before hundreds of onlookers who gathered for the bloody spectacle.
The punishments were the latest sign that insurgents wield the real power in the lawless African nation, where the embattled, Western-backed government is struggling to survive. Thursday's amputations were all the more audacious because they were carried out in Mogadishu, where the administration still has nominal control.
"The men were bleeding and crying when the man cut their hands and feet off with a long knife," said one witness, Liban Ali, among hundreds of people who gathered at a military camp in Mogadishu to watch the punishments. Another witness said a medical team was there to immediately treat the men.
The men were estimated to be between 18 and 25.
The Shariah court that carried out the sentences is run by al-Shabab, which is trying to topple Somalia's government and install a strict form of Islam. Hundreds of foreign fighters from countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are reinforcing the group's ranks.
The U.S. considers al-Shabab a terrorist group with links to al-Qaida, which al-Shabab denies. The group controls much of Somalia and its fighters operate openly in the capital.
The government appeared to have no authority to stop the punishments.
"All I can say for now is that it was a violation against human rights and a sentence carried out by criminals," Somali Information Minister Farhan Ali Mohamud said when asked to comment on the amputations.
Amnesty International condemned the punishments, saying they amount to torture and defy international law.
"The horrific nature of such acts that were carried out in front of a crowd adds further injustice," said Tawanda Hondora, the deputy director of Amnesty International's Africa program.
A strict interpretation of Islamic law calls for amputation for crimes of theft. Convicts in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria's Muslim north have received such sentences, although they are rare.
Somalis traditionally observe Sufi Islam, a relatively moderate form of worship. But in recent years, insurgents have begun to follow austere Wahabi Islam - rooted in Saudi Arabia and practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
Wahabism is a component of jihadi Salafism, a doctrine that preaches spreading a strict interpretation of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, through violence.
Islamist fighters have controlled Somalia before. In 2006, the Council of Islamic Courts ruled much of southern Somalia and the capital for six months of relative calm. But critics likened the group to the Taliban, saying they terrified Somalis into submission with punishments such as stonings and public executions.
In early 2007, troops from neighboring Ethiopia helped the government drive out the Islamists, but they soon launched a bloody insurgency, which is continuing.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. A moderate Islamist was elected president in January in hopes that he could unite the country's feuding factions, but the violence has continued, unabated.
A surge in violence in recent weeks, which diplomats said is a major push by the insurgents to force the government out of its Mogadishu strongholds, has killed about 225 people.
Last week, the national security minister and Mogadishu's police chief were among those killed.
The country's lawlessness has spread security fears around region and raised concerns that al-Qaida is trying to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa. The anarchy has also allowed piracy to flourish off the country's coast.
Somali lawmakers pleaded this weekend for immediate international military intervention from countries including Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti to help quash the insurgency.
But there was no indication reinforcements would be forthcoming. Kenya has said it will not send troops, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he has not ruled out sending forces back into the country, but there were no plans to do so now. Ethiopia withdrew its troops in January after an unpopular, two-year presence.
The Washington Post, citing an anonymous U.S. official, reported Thursday that the United States has sent a shipment of weapons to the Somali government, suggesting the Obama administration wants to thwart an Islamist takeover.
The U.S. has avoided sustained military action in Somalia since it led a U.N. force that intervened in the early 1990s in an effort to fight famine. That mission led to clashes between U.N. forces and Somali warlords, including a battle in Mogadishu that killed 18 American soldiers.
Some 159,000 people have fled their homes since May 7, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The United Nations says an estimated 3.2 million Somalis - almost half the country's population - need food and other humanitarian aid.
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