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Government troops enter Somalia’s capital

Guy Calaf/AP PhotoTransitional Federal Government soldiers on their truck in Bur Haqaba, 37 miles south of Baidoa, Somalia Thursday. Residents living south of Mogadishu said they saw convoys of Islamists driving south toward the port city of Kismayo.
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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Somali government troops backed by Ethiopian forces rolled into Mogadishu without firing a shot Thursday, a striking gain in its bid to recapture the country from an Islamic movement that had once seemed nearly invincible.

Hours earlier, the Islamic militants fled Mogadishu, pledging to make a last stand in southern Somalia.

“We are in Mogadishu,” Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi said after flying from the government’s temporary base in western Somalia and meeting with local clan leaders to discuss the handover of the city. “We are coordinating our forces to take control of Mogadishu.”

The Islamic movement took control of Mogadishu six months ago and then advanced across most of southern Somalia, often without fighting. Ethiopian troops then went on the attack in support of the U.N.-backed government last week in attempt to push the Islamists out of power.

In the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday, two boats filled with Somalis and Ethiopians capsized after Yemeni patrol boats chased one of them and fired on two other vessels. At least 17 people drowned and 140 were missing, the U.N. refugee agency said Thursday. Yemeni authorities were searching for survivors, the agency said.

The confrontation took place when four boats smuggling 515 people were spotted by Yemeni authorities, the U.N. said. The two boats that were fired on had just offloaded passengers in Yemen and only smugglers were on board, the UNHCR said. The smugglers returned fire, according to Yemeni officials, and the two other boats capsized while trying to escape in the darkness, officials said.

Many of the Somalis said they were fleeing the fighting; others on board may have been poor migrants seeking better economic conditions, officials said.

Experts had feared the conflict could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa. A recent U.N. report said 10 countries have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict and using Somalia as a proxy battlefield.

The conflict has also drawn concern in the United States, which accused the Islamists of harboring al-Qaida terrorists. An insurgent group linked to al-Qaida in Iraq urged Muslims on Thursday to support the Islamists in Somalia “financially, with weapons and men and with prayers.”

The prime minister was welcomed to the town of Afgoye on the outskirts of Mogadishu by dozens of clan leaders from the capital and hundreds of government and Ethiopian troops. The clan leaders pledged to the help collect weapons from the remaining militiamen in the capital, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press.

The Islamists’ retreat early Thursday, which its leaders called tactical, was followed by looting by clan militiamen, some of whom had been their allies. It was a chilling reminder of the chaos that had once ruled Mogadishu after warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, leaving the country without a central government.

Gunfire could be heard in many parts of the city, and witnesses said several people had been killed.

Before the Islamists established control, Mogadishu had been ruled for the last 15 years by competing clans who came together to support the Islamic movement. The interim government that was established two years ago with the help of the U.N. had been unable to assert its authority in the city, in part because it was weakened by clan rivalries.

Somalia’s complex clan system has been the basis of politics and identity here for centuries. Many fear they may now revert to fighting one another and reject the government’s authority.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi vowed to inflict total defeat on the Islamic movement and said he hoped the fighting would be over “in days, if not in a few weeks.”

“We are discussing what we need to do to make sure Mogadishu does not descend into chaos. We will not let Mogadishu burn,” he told reporters in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

President Abdullahi Yusuf tried to allay fears of rampant violence in the capital, saying his troops were not a threat to the people of Mogadishu. “The government is committed to solving every problem that may face Somalia through dialogue and peaceful ways,” the statement said.

In the south, meanwhile, the Islamic militants vowed to continue their fight against the government and Ethiopian forces, saying they had fled Mogadishu to spare civilian deaths.

“We want to face our enemy and their stooges … away from civilians,” Abdirahman Janaqow, a top leader in the Islamic movement, said in a telephone interview.

The Red Cross said hospitals and other medical facilities in southern and central Somalia have admitted more than 800 people over the past few days.

Yusuf Ibrahim, a former Islamic movement fighter, said only the most hardcore fighters were still opposing the government and its Ethiopian backers. He said they numbered about 3,000 and were headed to the port city of Kismayo, south of Mogadishu, which the Islamists captured in September.

Witnesses reported seeing a large number of foreign fighters in the convoys heading south. Islamic movement leaders had called on foreign Muslims to join their “holy war” against Ethiopia, which has a majority Christian population. Hundreds were believed to have answered the call.

Residents told the AP that Islamic leader Hassan Dahir Aweys had arrived in the frontline town of Jilib, 65 miles north of Kismayo, earlier Thursday with hundreds of fighters aboard 45 pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

Islamic fighters have gone door to door in Kismayo recruiting children as young as 12 to make a last stand on behalf of the Islamic movement, according to a U.N. report citing the families of boys taken to Jilib.

___

Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Les Neuhaus in Afgoye, Somalia, and Chris Tomlinson in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

Headline: Government troops enter Somalia’s capital, attempt to take control

Category: I

Creation Date: 12/28/2006 11:25:15 Submit Date: 12/28/2006 11:26:32

By Line: By SALAD DUHUL Title: Associated Press Writer

Object Name: SOMALIA, 5TH LD-WRITETHRU

ID: p0619

Source: The Associated Press Credit: (AP)

File Type: text/xml


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