updated 5/15/2005 2:38:21 AM ET 2005-05-15T06:38:21

Warlords began withdrawing thousands of militia fighters from the Somali capital on Saturday in a bid to restore order after more than 15 years of anarchy and civil war — a move the African Union has said is essential to stability.

Hundreds of armed militiamen, who not too long ago fought one another on the streets of Mogadishu, parked about 60 pickup trucks mounted with machine-guns at Mogadishu’s main soccer stadium, shook hands, smiled and even struck up conversations.

Many fighters remain
Freelance militiamen and those controlled by businessmen and Islamic courts, however, are not part of the pullout and this could undermine efforts to restore order in the city with an estimated 10,500 armed fighters.

An aim of the pullout is to guarantee the security of the transitional government when it returns from exile in neighboring Kenya.

From early Saturday, Mogadishu residents gathered at the stadium to watch the militias come together before they drove to camps outside the city where they will be restricted. They will later be demobilized.

Years of armed conflict
Somalia has been without a central government since clan-based warlords overthrew the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Warlords then turned on each other, plunging the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million into anarchy.

Its government, formed in 2004, is opposed by Islamic extremists and some of the dozens of warlords in the country.

Efforts to relocate to Mogadishu have been undermined by government divisions over plans to deploy peacekeepers, including from neighboring Ethiopia.

On Thursday, the African Union Peace and Security Council authorized the deployment of a 1,700-strong Ugandan-Sudanese peacekeeping force to protect government officials, secure supply routes and carry out reconnaissance missions.

Scene of ‘Black Hawk Down’
A 1992 attempt by the United Nations to intervene in Somalia yielded some success, but deteriorated in October 1993 when U.S. troops tried to capture one of the most powerful warlords, Farah Aidid.

That battle, featured in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down,” left 18 U.S. soldiers dead and led to a change in U.S. policy so that foreign interventions could only take place with a clear national interest. In recent years, Washington has expressed concern that Somalia’s lawlessness could attract international terrorists.

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