updated 9/26/2006 2:09:25 PM ET 2006-09-26T18:09:25

Men in machine gun-mounted trucks Tuesday quickly dispersed hundreds of women protesting radical Islamic fighters who have taken over this strategic port town and much of the rest of southern Somalia.

At least 20 women were arrested, according to relatives of the demonstrators who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals. The trucks carrying the men were flying the black flags associated with Islamic extremism.

The protests came a day after the militants opened fire on demonstrators, killing a teenage boy. Also Monday, Hassan Turki, a leader of the Islamic militia, for the first time acknowledged his forces had been bolstered by foreign fighters he called “our Muslim brothers.”

The group’s strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises the specter of Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban militia, and contrasts with the moderate Islam that has dominated Somali culture for centuries. The United States has accused the Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida 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.

“While foreign fighters are in our town, we will continue these protests,” Hawo Ugas Farah, one of Tuesday’s demonstrators, told The Associated Press. “We don’t need international terrorists hiding in our country and killing our children.”

Still, some Somalis have embraced the radicals because they have brought a semblance of order in a troubled corner of Africa.

Taking over towns
A curfew has been imposed on Kismayo, 260 miles southwest of Mogadishu, by the Islamic militia that took control of the town Sunday without a fight, although thousands protested their presence the next day. The Islamic militia swept through southern Somalia since taking over the capital in June.

Somalis fleeing the conflict have pushed the number of refugees in neighboring Kenya to the highest level in a decade, according to the U.N. World Food Program. The number of registered refugees in Kenya has reached 240,000, with thousands of new arrivals, severely straining resources, the U.N. said.

The Islamic group is vying for power with Somalia’s increasingly sidelined official government, formed two years ago with U.N. support. The government has failed to establish any control outside its base in Baidoa, 150 miles west of Mogadishu.

Troops from neighboring Ethiopia arrived Monday to support the weak government. Witnesses saw about 300 Ethiopians in a convoy of 50 armored trucks in Bardaale, 40 miles west of Baidoa, the only town held by the government.

Islamic forces believe Ethiopian troops aim to cut off their route between Kismayo and Mogadishu, and called their incursion a declaration of war.

Ethiopia has denied its troops are in Somalia.

Preparing the public for combat
In recent days, Islamic militiamen have been operating training camps for the general public in preparation for a possible battle with Ethiopian troops. The students, whose number was unclear, perform physical exercise, shoot at targets and handle weapons.

“We will instruct them in combat tactics so that they can defend their land and religion against the Ethiopian enemy forces occupying Baidoa,” said Sheik Abdirahman Janaqow, deputy chairman of the Islamic courts.

Liban Abdi Hussein, a 24-year-old at one of the camps, said he was happy to learn how to fight a holy war against the Ethiopians. “I want martyrdom,” he said Tuesday.

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. The Islamic group has stepped into the power vacuum and seized an enormous amount of control.

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