- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia’s prime minister promised thousands of war-weary Somalis peace and stability yesterday as he formally took control of the battle-scarred capital for the first time since his government was formed two years ago.

Ali Mohamed Gedi drove through the streets of Mogadishu in a heavily armed convoy a day after Islamic fighters fled and his Ethiopian-backed troops seized the city.

“Today is the beginning of a new life, new stabilization and a new future for Somalia,” Mr. Gedi told cheering residents.

As a sign of goodwill, President Abdullahi Yusuf and the Ethiopian government declared a 24-hour cease-fire to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha today.

But with violent protests in one neighborhood in support of the Islamic fighters who had vowed to establish a government based on the Koran, and the movement’s leader promising to fight on from a key southern town, the task facing Somalia’s U.N.-backed, secular government is immense.

Even before the rise of the Islamists, Mr. Gedi’s government had been kept out of Mogadishu by clan violence. There was an attempt on his life during a rare trip to the city in November 2005.

Yesterday, though, he was embraced. Waving Somali flags, thousands lined the streets and climbed buildings to catch a glimpse of the leader in the seaside capital.

“This is a historic day for us,” said Sahra Yusuf, a mother of three who was dressed in traditional white cloth. “This is a sign that Somalia will be able to stand on its own feet.”

With tight security that included marksmen on roof tops, Mr. Gedi was more realistic, appealing for help to rebuild a country ruined by 15 years of civil war and infighting. He called for regional peacekeepers to help ensure further violence does not erupt.

Parliament was expected to impose martial law across the country.

The U.S. State Department called for all Somalis to work for “genuine national reconciliation” and reiterated support for an African peacekeeping force to be deployed in the country.

“The current situation in Somalia provides a historic opportunity for the Somali people to achieve a broad-based, inclusive government,” the State Department said.

Government troops backed by Ethiopian soldiers have swept quickly across the country since Sunday, retaking territory captured by the Islamic movement earlier this year. The government had previously only controlled the western town of Baidoa, where it had set up its base.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the executive leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement, told the Associated Press yesterday his fighters would remain defiant.

“We will not run away from our enemies. We will never depart from Somalia. We will stay in our homeland,” he said from the southern city of Kismayo, where his forces retreated from Mogadishu.

Hundreds of foreign fighters, mainly Arabs and southern Asians, were seen in Kismayo yesterday. Some of the Islamic movement’s members espouse an extreme form of Islam, and the United States accuses it of harboring al Qaeda terrorists.

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