- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

KISMAYU, Somalia - Islamist fighters abandoned the last major town they held early today and were seen heading south toward the Kenyan border while government forces approached slowly because of land mines, residents and a government spokesman said.

The Islamist forces began to disintegrate after a night of artillery attacks at the front line and following a mutiny within its ranks, witnesses said. Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said he had information that Islamist forces were moving south toward the Kenyan border.

“The Islamists have fled Kismayu, and our troops are on the way,” Mr. Dinari said.

Leila Ali, a local radio journalist, confirmed that forces of the Islamic Courts Union had left the city and that no guerrillas were on the streets.

Yesterday in Kismayu, Somalia’s third-largest city, an estimated 3,000 Islamist fighters were preparing for a bloody showdown, but guerrilla Rabi Ahmed told the Associated Press that about 50 militiamen in the city were refusing to go to the front and fight.

Islamist leaders had vowed to make a stand against Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in Africa, or to begin an Iraq-style guerrilla war.

“We will continue fighting the Ethiopians from everywhere until they leave Somalia,” Islamist spokesman Abdirahim Ali Mudey told Reuters.

It was not clear whether, after two weeks of war, the two sides would go on fighting through the night and into the new year. Night battles are unusual in Somalia.

The besieged Islamic Courts Union had rallied several thousand fighters at Jilib, just north of the port town of Kismayu on the shores of the Indian Ocean, after a retreat south 190 miles from the capital, Mogadishu.

“My fighters will defeat the Ethiopians forces,” Sheik Ahmed Mohamed Islan, the head of the Islamist movement in the Kismayuo region, said by telephone. “Even if we are defeated, we will start an insurgency. We will kill every Somali that supports the government and Ethiopians.”

Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi said three al Qaeda suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed more than 250 people were hiding in Kismayu.

Somalia’s interim government and its Ethiopian allies have long accused Islamist militias of harboring al Qaeda, and the U.S. government has said the 1998 bombers have become leaders in the movement in Africa.

“If we capture them alive, we will hand them over to the United States,” Mr. Gedi told AP. “We know they are in Kismayu.”

The intervention of Ethiopia has reversed the fortunes of the government and the hard-line religious Islamists, which just two weeks ago controlled the capital and appeared on the verge of routing a weak interim government stranded in a provincial town.

Now the government has control of Mogadishu, and the Islamists without tanks or planes are fighting with their backs to the sea and the southern border with Kenya. Senior Islamist leaders Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheik Sharif Ahmed were based in Kismayu.

Kenya has reinforced its northern border, and U.S. forces are said to be in the region, including the sea, to prevent the escape of foreign militants aligned with the Islamists.

Ethiopia says it has 4,000 troops in Somalia, though many think that number could be far higher.

Born out of Shariah courts operating in Mogadishu, the Islamists threw U.S.-backed warlords out of the capital in June and took a swath of southern Somalia.

They brought order to Mogadishu for the first time since 1991, when warlords ousted a dictator. But some of their hard-line practices such as closing cinemas and holding public executions angered some Somalis and fueled U.S. and Ethiopian accusations that they were a dangerous Taliban-style movement. Both Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and Washington say the Islamic Courts Union is linked to al Qaeda, an accusation the movement says is trumped up to justify foreign intervention.

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