Islamic forces abandon Somalia's capital

Iran Materials 28 December 2006 16:41 (UTC +04:00)

(AP) - Clan militiamen poured into the streets of Somalia's capital Thursday after the Islamic movement that has controlled Mogadishu for months abandoned the city and government forces advanced to within striking distance.

Gunfire echoed through the streets and hundreds of gunmen who had backed the Muslim militants demonstrated they had broken allegiance by switching from uniforms to civilian clothes, reports Trend.

Some began looting buildings deserted by the Islamists. One resident said three men and a woman had been killed in a scramble for ammunition and food.

"We will capture Mogadishu any time within the coming hours," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press, saying the country was in a state of emergency. "We are now at the entry points of the city."

President Abdullahi Yusuf was expected to offer the clans a truce later Thursday.

Residents south of the city said Islamist forces were streaming south toward the port city of Kismayo. Yusuf Ibrahim, a former Islamic fighter who quit Thursday, said about 3,000 fighters left for Kismayo.

Islamists acknowledged they had left Mogadishu but said they were not giving up their fight. Abdirahman Janaqow, a senior leader, told The Associated Press he ordered his forces out of the capital to avoid bloodshed.

"We decided to leave Mogadishu because of the safety of the civilians," Janaqow said in a telephone interview. "We want to face our enemy and their stooges in a separate area, away from civilians."

A well-known clan leader, Hussein Haji Bod, asked people to remain calm and said elders would meet Thursday to discuss the "future of the capital." The largest market in the capital was closed for fear it would be looted.

The Council of Islamic Courts seized Mogadishu in June and went on to take much of southern Somalia, often without fighting. They were later joined by foreign militants, including Pakistanis and Arabs, who supported their goal of making Somalia an Islamic state.

The Islamists seemed invincible after capturing the capital, but they have been no match for Ethiopia, which has the strongest military in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian forces crossed the border Sunday to reinforce the internationally recognized Somali government, which was bottled up in Baidoa, 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

Ethiopia's prime minister has said that his country was "forced to enter a war" with the Council of Islamic Courts after the group declared holy war on Ethiopia, a largely Christian country that has feared the emergence of a neighboring Islamic state.

The conflict in Somalia has drawn concern from the United States, which accuses the Islamists of harboring al-Qaida terrorists, and other Western powers.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, said Tuesday he had been given unconfirmed reports that as many as 1,000 people had died and 3,000 were wounded since the fighting began on Saturday.

The Red Cross reported 850 people injured at hospitals supported by the relief agency in Mogadishu and Baidoa, but had no figure for fatalities.

Ethiopian and Somali government troops advanced on the capital from the north and the west, capturing the country's most important airfield and driving Islamic fighters out of Jowhar, the last major town on the northern route. As troops entered Jowhar on Wednesday, an independent radio station began blasting Western music, which the militias had banned.

The commander of Ethiopian forces in Somalia, Gen. Salem Hagos, met Thursday with government commanders to discuss their next move. Col. Ahmed Omar, a Somali officer, said Ethiopian troops would stop advancing on the capital, but government forces would approach the capital.

More than 20 fighting vehicles loaded with Islamic militiamen rolled into Kismayo early Thursday, but Somalis there also appeared to be bucking Islamic rule. Clans called on the governor to surrender to government forces, but he refused, said relatives interviewed by The Associated Press, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

Somalia's complex clan system has been the basis of politics and identity here for centuries. But fighting between clans has prevented Somalia from having an effective government since 1991. That's when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator and turned on one another.

Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up the interim government. It has been unable to assert much authority, in part because it has been weakened by clan rivalries.

The competition for control of Mogadishu since 1991 has involved the Abgal and Habr Gadir clans, who came together earlier this year to support the Islamic council. Most of the shooting and looting in Mogadishu on Thursday was coming from Abgal clan strongholds.

The Islamists tried to supplant the influence of the clans by appealing to Somalis as Muslims. Many Somalis were grateful for the order the movement imposed. But many also chafed at the strict enforcement of Islamic codes.

On Wednesday, streets in the capital were once again crowded with women selling qat the popular leafy stimulant banned by the militias.