Somalis, Ethiopians battle Islamic foes
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Somali government troops backed by Ethiopian soldiers battled about 600 Islamic militiamen Thursday on the southern tip of this Horn of Africa nation, and U.S. Navy forces prevented the militants from fleeing by sea, authorities said.
A U.S. diplomat said she hoped peacekeepers from the region could be in place by month’s end in Somalia, where the Council of Islamic Courts militias were driven from the capital of Mogadishu and much of the south last week. But peacekeepers could face bloody reprisals from the militias, who want to rule by the Quran and have vowed to launch an Iraqi-style guerrilla war.
Somalia hasn’t had an effective central government in 15 years, and Mogadishu resident Musse Ali said foreigners will also have to protect themselves from warlords and freelance militiamen.
“The peacekeepers will be targets for terrorists,” said Ali, 41. “They will have to face them.”
Somalia’s interior minister said thousands of Islamic fighters were still hiding in the capital.
“There are 3,500 Islamists hiding in Mogadishu and in the surrounding areas, and they are likely to destabilize the security of the city,” Hussein Aideed said.
The battle between the estimated 600 militiamen and the Ethiopian and Somali troops took place far to the southwest near the border with Kenya.
“We hope they will either surrender or be killed by our troops,” Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press.
Kenya has closed its border, fearing militants would slip across the frontier. That has prevented thousands of Somali refugees from seeking safety in Kenya, according to the U.N.
Dinari said some militants were trying to escape by sea but that U.S. Navy forces were deployed to stop them. Three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Islamic movement. The Islamists deny having any links to al-Qaida.
In Mogadishu, residents of this ruined seaside capital have been on edge since the U.N.-backed Somali government took over last week with crucial military aid from neighboring Ethiopia.
The city is still teeming with weapons. Some of the feared warlords of the past ” who fled when the Islamists seized the capital in June ” have returned to the capital with their guns.
Ethiopian MiG fighter jets and tanks were vital to helping the weak Somali military rout the Islamists. Now, though, Ethiopia wants to pull out in a few weeks, saying its forces cannot afford to stay.
Jendayi Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Africa, said Thursday that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had promised President Bush in a recent phone call that he could supply 1,000-2,000 troops to protect Somalia’s government and train its troops.
“We hope to have the Ugandans deployed before the end of the January,” Frazer told journalists after meeting with Museveni in the Ethiopian capital.
Museveni and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said after meeting with Frazer that they supported an African Union resolution to put peacekeepers in Somalia as soon as possible.
But Somalia’s history with foreigners ” particularly Americans ” has been dark.
A U.N. peacekeeping force, including U.S. troops, arrived in 1992, but the experiment in nation-building ended the next year when fighters loyal to clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and battled American troops, killing 18 servicemen.
Hassan Ali, a truck driver whose vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade at an illegal checkpoint overnight, said Thursday that peacekeepers will face unpredictable violence.
“It’s always the same thing, always,” Ali said, standing by the smoldering shell of his truck. He said the militiamen were demanding roughly $40 for him to pass, but blew up the truck when he couldn’t pay. Three people were wounded, he said.
The ease with which Somalis can get weapons is a major problem. Thursday was Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi’s deadline for residents to give up their arms voluntarily, but only a handful were seen doing so. The Bakaara arms market was doing brisk business in Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns.
But Gedi said the disarmament program was working, and that his forces will seize large arms caches around Mogadishu this week. He said a house-by-house search would follow.
Somalia’s last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. The current government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but has been weakened by internal rifts.
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