MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia’s president flew into the beleaguered capital Monday, 10 days after his forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, drove a rival Islamic movement from the city.
The arrival of President Abdullahi Yusuf was highly symbolic — he took office in 2004 but has not set foot in Mogadishu for 40 years and has spent much of his time as Somalia’s leader outside the country because he considered the capital too unsafe to set up a government.
Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, said Sunday that the United States would use its diplomatic and financial resources to support the government.
Frazer said Somalia is important to the United States because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean. The U.S. also wants to make sure international terrorists do not take advantage of the chaos to establish a haven.
Security concerns in Mogadishu remained high, however. Remnants of the Islamic force are believed hiding in the capital, and gunmen attacked Ethiopian troops Sunday in the second day of violence.
Yusuf’s visit came as government troops in southern Somalia appeared close to capturing a jungle hideout used by the Islamic militants, one that is believed to be an al-Qaida base and one of their last remaining outposts.
Defense Minister Col. Barre “Hirale” Aden Shire said government troops were poised to enter the Islamic stronghold at Ras Kamboni, on the southernmost tip of Somalia between the sea and the Kenyan border, after a two-day battle.
Skirmishes were still taking place outside Ras Kamboni, where the Islamic militia were cornered, and both sides had suffered heavy casualties, he said.
Residents in the coastal seaport of Kismayo, 87 miles northeast of Ras Kamboni, said they saw wounded Ethiopian soldiers being loaded onto military helicopters for evacuation.
U.S. warships offshore
The Islamic movement’s force is cut off from escape by sea by patrolling U.S. warships and across the Kenyan border by the Kenyan military.
U.S. officials said after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that extremists with ties to al-Qaida operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and that al-Qaida members are believed to have visited it. The alleged mastermind of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, escaped to Ras Kamboni, according to testimony from one of the convicted bombers.
Ethiopia intervened in Somalia on Dec. 24 to help defeat the Islamic movement that threatened to overthrow the internationally recognized government, which at the time controlled only the western town of Baidoa.
Many in predominantly Muslim Somalia resent having troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The countries fought two brutal wars, the last in 1977.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Then they turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million into anarchy.
Leader has ties to Ethiopia
Yusuf, 72, last visited Mogadishu 40 years ago, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press. A former colonel in the Somalia army during the 1960s, Yusuf was jailed by Barre when he refused to cooperate in a coup d’etat in 1969. With Ethiopian support, he launched a rebellion against Barre during the 1980s.
When he took office in 2004, members of the government quickly split over its priorities and where it should be located.
Yusuf was expected to meet with traditional Somali elders and stay at the former presidential palace that for the last 15 years has been occupied by warlords, Dinari added. Security across the capital was tight, though Dinari claimed: “There are no security concerns at all.”
The African Union has begun planning for peacekeepers and Uganda has promised at least 1,000 troops. Frazer has said she hopes the first troops will begin arriving in Mogadishu before the end of the month.
The mission will be modeled on a peacekeeping force that recently concluded duty in Burundi. African troops there provided security for political leaders and key facilities while a new government took over the country. Like the AU mission in Burundi, a mission to Somalia could be switched to a U.N. operation if necessary, Frazer said.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a speech Monday to diplomats at the Vatican, urged all sides in Somalia to lay down their arms and negotiate. Recalling an Italian nun who was slain in Somalia in September, Benedict said he hoped she would inspire efforts to end conflict in the Horn of Africa.
Sister Leonella Sgorbati was shot in the back four times outside the Mogadishu hospital where she worked as a missionary in an attack possibly linked to worldwide Muslim anger toward Benedict, who had quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of Islam’s founder as “evil and inhuman.” The Islamic movement had controlled the capital at the time.
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