msnbc.com news services
updated 1/12/2007 3:07:13 PM ET 2007-01-12T20:07:13

Ethiopian-backed government forces captured the last remaining stronghold of the Islamic movement in southern Somalia, the Somali defense minister said Friday, 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 “Hirale” Aden Shire told The Associated Press.

He said government troops backed by Ethiopian forces and MiG fighter jets chased fleeing Islamic fighters into nearby forests and 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. airstrike Monday targeting suspected al-Qaida militants.

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 warlords and the government have agreed to collaborate for the restoration of peace in Somalia,” said government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari, who said Yusuf had met with three top Somali warlords and two other faction leaders.

“The agreement means they have to disarm their militia and their men have to join the national army,” Dinari told The Associated Press.

Outside the peace talks, however, a clan fight over parking left at least six people dead and 10 wounded.

The rout of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, which had controlled much of Somalia for the past six months, by Somali government troops and Ethiopian soldiers has allowed the country’s weak U.N.-backed transitional government to enter the capital for the first time since it was established in 2004.

Challenges abound
Besides clan divisions, resentment of Ethiopia’s intervention and remnants of the Islamic movement also were likely to bedevil the government for some time to come.

There are believed to be around 20,000 militiamen in Somalia and the country is awash with guns. Rival clan fighting and warlords already have been the undoing of 13 other attempts at government in Somalia since the country collapsed into chaos in 1991. The government’s call last week for countrywide disarmament went unheeded.

One of Somalia’s most powerful warlords, Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, told the AP after the meeting the war lords were “fed up” with guns and ready to cooperate with the government.

However, another warlord spelled out a warning.

“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 north Mogadishu. “If they fail and lose the confidence of the people, I think they would be called new warlords.”

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.

There have been at least three attacks against government forces and their Ethiopian allies since Tuesday, killing five people, witnesses in the capital said.

“Deploying an African stabilization force into Somalia quickly is vitally important to support efforts to achieve stability,” U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger said in an opinion piece in Kenya’s Nation Newspaper Friday.

But so far no one on the continent has responded to the call for 8,000 African peacekeepers for Somalia, although Uganda has indicated it is willing to deploy 1,500 peacekeepers as part of a wider mission.

Hunt for al-Qaida suspects
Meanwhile Ethiopian and U.S. forces were in pursuit of three top al-Qaida suspects, with a senior U.S. official confirming that none of them was killed in a U.S. airstrike and all were believed to be still in Somalia.

In Washington, officials said U.S. special operations forces were in Somalia. Pentagon officials dismissed suggestions they are planning to send large numbers of ground troops.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.

Ethiopia sent troops in on Dec. 24 to attack the Somali Islamic fundamentalist movement. Most of the Islamic militiamen have dispersed, but a few hardcore members have fled south toward the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean, and others in hiding in the capital have threatened to wage guerrilla war.

The U.S. has repeatedly accused the group of harboring three suspects wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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