Gun-toting Shabab insurgents staged rallies across Somalia Monday to celebrate their group's recognition by Osama bin Laden's successor as a member of the Islamist Al-Qaeda network.
"The unification of Al-Shabab with Al-Qaeda breaks the hearts of the enemy," Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told a crowd of several hundred in rebel-held Afgoye, just outside Somalia's war-torn capital Mogadishu.
Extremists chanting anti-Western slogans ordered people to attend the rallies, witnesses said.
"At least 600 people gathered carrying placards supporting the unification of the two groups -- people chanted Allahu Akbar (God is great)" said Abdikarin Adan, a witness.
"Businesses were shut after Shabab fighters in cars with loudspeakers ordered people to attend the demonstration," said Mohamed Sufi, another witness.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced in a video message posted on jihadist forums last week that Shabab fighters had joined ranks with the Islamist network.
Shabab insurgents, fighting to overthrow the weak Western-backed government in the war-torn Horn of Africa country, proclaimed their allegiance to then Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2009.
"Mujahideen fighters worldwide, I promise you that the unification is a sign of the return of the Islamic caliphate worldwide," Rage added.
Several demonstrations also took place across Shabab-held southern Somalia including the port city of Merka, where the extremist gunmen ordered people to shut down businesses to attend the rally.
"Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri has regional leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa," Rage added. "Here, where we are today, we will strengthen the unification of the mujahideen fighters."
Shabab fighters still control large parts of central and southern Somalia but are facing increasing pressure from regional forces, with Kenya in the far south, Ethiopia in the south and west, and African Union troops in Mogadishu.
Kenya army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said the rallies were a "forced demonstration."
Somalia's embattled government -- which controls only Mogadishu with 10,000 AU troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti -- repeated calls Monday for the lifting of a United Nations arms embargo so it can "defend the country."
"We ask all the young people that have been misled by Al-Shabab to stop working with them," the government statement added.
"The Somali government will not take lightly the danger from their official union and will put all its forces, as well as the general public, on the highest alert."
There are about 200 foreign fighters in Somalia with the Shabab, Britain's Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies said in a report earlier this month.
However, analysts have warned previously that Al-Qaeda faces significant challenges operating in Somalia, with its lack of resources, basic infrastructure and potential hostility from rival clan-based power structures.