Friday, January 12, 2007

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ethiopian-backed government forces have captured the last stronghold of the Islamist movement in southern Somalia, the Somali defense minister said yesterday just hours after warlords met with the president and promised to enlist their militiamen in the army.

The southern town of Ras Kamboni fell after five days of heavy fighting, Defense Minister Col. Barre Aden Shire said.

He said government troops backed by Ethiopian forces and MiG fighter aircraft chased fleeing Islamists into nearby forests and that the fighting would continue. He did not give casualty figures.

Ras Kamboni is in a rugged coastal area a few miles from the Kenyan border. It is not far from the site of a U.S. air strike Monday on suspected al Qaeda terrorists — the first U.S. offensive in Somalia since 18 American soldiers were killed here in 1993.

The report of the town’s fall came after Somalia’s warlords met with President Abdullahi Yusuf in the capital of Mogadishu and pledged to disarm their militias, a major step toward bringing calm to this city after years of chaos.

The meeting sought to establish enough security in the capital so international peacekeepers cancome in to protect the government until it can establish an effective police force and army.

Outside the peace talks, however, a fight over where to park an armored car left at least six persons dead and 10 wounded. Clan gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade and briefly exchanged gunfire with government troops during the dispute.

Nevertheless, government officials said the meeting between Mr. Yusuf and three top warlords was successful.

“The warlords and the government have agreed to collaborate for the restoration of peace in Somalia,” said government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari.

One of Somalia’s most powerful warlords, Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, said after the meeting the clans were “fed up” with guns and ready to cooperate.

But another warlord issued a warning to the government.

“If the government is ready to reconcile its people and chooses the right leadership, I hope there is no need to revolt against it,” said Muse Sudi Yalahow, whose fighters control northern Mogadishu. “If they fail and lose the confidence of the people, I think they would be called new warlords.”

The government was only able to enter Mogadishu after Ethiopian troops routed an Islamic movement that had controlled most of southern Somalia for the past six months. Now it must deal with clan divisions that have spoiled the 13 attempts to form an effective government since the last one collapsed in 1991.

The United States, United Nations and the African Union all want to deploy peacekeepers to stop Somalia from returning to clan-based violence and anarchy. But so far no African governments have responded to the call for an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force for the country, although Uganda has indicated it is willing to send 1,500 peacekeepers as part of a wider mission.

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