- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ali Said Omar has lived in Mogadishu long enough to know that the only lasting condition in this seaside capital is war.

“Somalia is like an unexploded bomb,” the peace activist said yesterday, a week after the government drove out a militant Islamic group and took over this notoriously violent city.

But many here think that the only chance for real stability in Somalia lies with international peacekeepers — not with the government, which controlled just one town before Ethiopia intervened in the past 10 days and provided the administration with tanks and MiG fighters.

Regional diplomats worked to arrange the speedy deployment of African peacekeepers to help the interim government establish its authority in the country, which has known only anarchy for 15 years.

“There is a power vacuum already,” said Mr. Omar, 29. “Everybody has taken his own weapons back. How can the government say it’s in control?”

Fighters belonging to a militant Islamist movement fled yesterday into a rugged, forested corner of Somalia from rapidly advancing government forces. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi offered amnesty if they surrendered.

As the last remaining stronghold of the Islamist group was overrun by government troops backed by Ethiopian forces, the net began closing on al Qaeda suspects thought to be sheltered by the hard-line group.

Neighboring Kenya vowed to seal its border to prevent any extremists, wedged against the sea and the border, from escaping the 13-day military offensive.

Sea routes from southern Somalia were being patrolled by the U.S. Navy, hunting for three al Qaeda suspects thought to be among the Islamist fighters and wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

“Kenya cannot be a haven for people who are not wanted by their lawful government,” Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Matua said.

Thousands of Somalis have fled in the wake of advancing Ethiopian and government forces, but most returned to their homes once the fighting subsided. The U.N. refugee agency has sent supplies to the Kenyan border as a precaution, but there has been no increase in the number of Somalis seeking refuge in Kenya, said Christian Balslev-Olesen, country director for Kenya for UNICEF.

The military advance marked a stunning turnaround for Somalia’s government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town — its base of Baidoa — while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia.

But with the intervention of Ethiopia, which has one of Africa’s largest armies, the Islamist group has been forced from the capital of Mogadishu and other key towns in the past 10 days. Its casualties run into the thousands, Ethiopia said.

Yet it does not mark the end of the Islamists or their ultimate defeat. The group has promised to wage an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and a woman was killed Sunday in a mysterious blast in Mogadishu.

Diplomats want a peacekeeping force to replace the muscle of Ethiopia, a Christian country long despised in Muslim Somalia. The two countries have fought two wars, the last in 1977, and Somalia lays claim to territories in Ethiopia.

In a bid to cement its control, Mr. Gedi ordered a nationwide disarmament beginning today, an immense task in a country awash with weapons after more than a decade of civil war.

Six months ago, Islamists defeated a U.S.-backed alliance of Somali warlords controlling Mogadishu and then swept through much of southern Somalia. With them came a semblance of order in the chaotic country — but also a strict and often severe interpretation of Islam, which raised memories of Afghanistan’s Taliban.

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