updated 9/24/2006 1:49:34 PM ET 2006-09-24T17:49:34

Hundreds of Islamic militiamen in heavily armed trucks took over the southern town of Kismayo, one of the last seaports that had been outside their control in Somalia, witnesses said Sunday.

“The Islamic courts have entered Kismayo,” said resident Abdi Gashan, adding that the warlords who previously ruled the area had fled. “We welcome the Islamic courts.”

The peaceful takeover was the latest blow to Somalia’s virtually powerless government. The country’s defense minister, Col. Barre “Hirale” Aden Shire, had been a leading member of the Juba Valley Alliance that had been ruling Kismayo and was among those who fled.

Hirale’s deputy, Yusuf Mire Mohamud, said “the Juba Valley Alliance has collapsed today.”

Members of the Islamic group, which the United States accuses of harboring al-Qaida terrorists, were not immediately available for comment.

Leaders from the Islamic militia — which controls the capital, Mogadishu, along with much of southern Somalia — have been in Kismayo for several days, in direct challenge to the alliance. Fearful residents of the town, some 260 miles southwest of Mogadishu, have been fleeing across the border to Kenya in case fighting breaks out.

Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy.

An interim government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order after years of lawlessness. But the Islamic movement seized Mogadishu in June and now controls much of the country’s south.

The government controls just one town, Baidoa, 150 miles from the capital.

The United States has accused the Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden has portrayed Somalia as a battleground in his war on the U.S.

The group’s strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which was ousted by a U.S.-led campaign for harboring bin Laden and al-Qaida fighters. Still, many residents credit the courts with bringing a semblance of order.

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