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Somalia, U.N. regain Mogadishu

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Jubilant Somalis cheered as troops of the U.N.-backed interim government rolled into Mogadishu unopposed yesterday, putting an end to six months of domination of the capital by a radical Islamist movement.

Ethiopian soldiers stopped on the outskirts of town, after providing much of the military might in the offensive that shattered what had seemed an unbeatable Islamist militia. Islamist fighters fled south vowing to continue the battle.

"We are in Mogadishu," Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi declared after meeting with local clan leaders to discuss the peaceful transfer of the city.

Despite the celebrations in the streets, worries about the future were widespread in a country that hasn't had an effective national government since clan warlords toppled a longtime dictator 15 years ago.

Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are suspicious of the transitional government's reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of East Africa's biggest armies. Witnesses said crowds threw rocks at Ethiopian troops on the city's northern edge.

Somalia's complex clan politics also are a big worry, having undone at least 14 attempts to install a central government in this violent, anarchic nation.

Mr. Gedi's government, set up in 2004 with U.N. backing, is riddled with clan rivalries, most notably between the young prime minister and elderly president.

Mr. Gedi later said his government was seeking approval from the interim parliament to impose martial law across Somalia while its forces attempt to restore order. Weapons will be confiscated, he said, without giving details.

A chilling reminder of the chaos Somalia has known came as clan militiamen and criminal groups began looting almost anything they could after the Islamist forces fled. At least four persons were killed in the melee, said one witness, Abdullahi Adow.

President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, whose shaky acting administration has spent the last year in a temporary capital, Baidoa, 150 miles west of Mogadishu, said government troops are not a threat to the city's people.

"The government is committed to solving every problem that may face Somalia through dialogue and peaceful ways," he said.

But gunfire was heard for most of the day in the city. The United Nations flew out 14 aid workers and one U.N. staff member because of deteriorating security.

Ethiopian troops, who pledged not to enter the capital, were stoned by crowds on the northern edge of the city, witnesses said. "How could we welcome an invading enemy?" said one protester, Faiza Ali Nur.

Relations between Somalia and Ethiopia have long been strained. They fought a bloody war over their disputed border in 1977.

After starting an offensive against the Islamist forces Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his army would go home once it defeated the Islamist movement, whose fighters had extended their control over much of southern Somalia in the past six months.

Mr. Meles vowed yesterday not to give up the fight until extremists and foreign fighters supporting the Islamist movement had been crushed.

Speaking in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, he said 2,000 to 3,000 Islamist fighters had been killed and 4,000 to 5,000 wounded. Ethiopia suffered a few hundred casualties, he told reporters.

Islamist militiamen, who had said they would defend Mogadishu to the last man, retreated toward the southern port of Kismayo.

The fighters had gone from door to door in Kismayo recruiting children as young as 12 to make a last stand on behalf of the Islamist movement, according to a confidential U.N. report, citing the families of boys taken to the front line town of Jilib, 65 miles north of Kismayo.

The Islamist movement took Mogadishu in a battle with clan warlords in June and then advanced across most of the south, often without fighting.

When Ethiopia began providing military aid to the transitional government, Islamist leaders issued a call for foreign Muslims to join their "holy war" against the Ethiopians. Somalis living on the coast reported seeing hundreds of foreigners entering the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that over the past few days, hospitals and other medical facilities in southern and central Somalia had admitted more than 800 wounded people.

The U.N. refugee agency said yesterday that two boats carrying Somalis and Ethiopians across the Gulf of Aden from northern Somalia capsized late Wednesday as they were being pursued by Yemen's coast guard. At least 17 persons drowned, and 140 were thought missing, it said.

The refugee agency said some of the 357 survivors claimed to be fleeing the fighting in central Somalia. But their boats sailed from ports far to the north in a relatively peaceful area of Somalia, from where a steady stream of economic migrants has set sail in recent years.