Jubilant Somalis cheered as troops of the U.N.-backed interim government rolled into Mogadishu unopposed Thursday, putting an end to six months of domination of the capital by a radical Islamic movement.
Ethiopian soldiers stopped on the outskirts of town, after providing much of the military might in the offensive that shattered what had seemed an unbeatable Islamic militia. Islamic fighters fled south vowing to continue the battle.
“We are in Mogadishu,” Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi declared after meeting with local clan leaders to discuss the peaceful hand-over of the city.
Despite the celebrations in the streets, worries about the future were widespread in a country that hasn’t had an effective national government since clan warlords toppled a longtime dictator 15 years ago.
Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are suspicious of the transitional government’s reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of East Africa’s biggest armies. Witnesses said crowds threw rocks at Ethiopians troops on the city’s northern edge.
Somalia’s complex clan politics also are a big worry, having undone at least 14 attempts to install a central government in this violent, anarchic nation.
'The future of Somalia is very bleak'
Gedi’s government, set up in 2004 with U.N. backing, is riddled with clan rivalries, most notably between the young prime minister and elderly president.
“The future of Somalia is very bleak and Somalis will share the same fate with Iraq and Afghanistan,” a Mogadishu resident, Abdullahi Mohamed Laki, told The Associated Press. “The transitional government has no broad support in the capital.”
Gedi later said his government was seeking approval from the interim parliament to impose martial law across Somalia while its forces attempt to restore order. Weapons will be confiscated, he said without giving details.
A chilling reminder of the chaos Somalia has known came as clan militiamen and criminal groups began looting almost anything they could after the Islamic forces fled. At least four people were killed in the melee, said one witness, Abdullahi Adow.
President Abdullahi Yusuf, whose shaky acting administration has spent the last year in a temporary capital, Baidoa, 150 miles west of Mogadishu, said government troops are not a threat to the city’s people.
“The government is committed to solving every problem that may face Somalia through dialogue and peaceful ways,” he said in a statement.
But gunfire was heard for most of the day in the city. The United Nations flew out 14 aid workers and one U.N. staff member because of deteriorating security.
Ethiopian troops, who pledged not to enter the capital, were stoned by crowds on the northern edge of the city, witnesses said. “How could we welcome an invading enemy,” said one protester, Faiza Ali Nur.
History of strained ties
Relations between Somalia and Ethiopia have long been strained. They fought a bloody war over their disputed border in 1977.
After launching an offensive against the Islamic forces Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his army would go home once it defeated the Islamic movement, whose fighters had extended their control over much of southern Somalia the past six months.
Meles vowed Thursday not to give up the fight until extremists and foreign fighters supporting the Islamic movement had been crushed.
“We need to pursue them to make sure that they do not establish themselves again and destabilize Somalia and the region,” he said, predicting that would take a few more weeks.
Speaking in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, he said 2,000 to 3,000 Islamic fighters had been killed and 4,000 to 5,000 wounded. Ethiopia suffered a few hundred casualties, he told reporters.
Islamic militiamen, who had said they would defend Mogadishu to the last man, retreated toward the southern port of Kismayo.
The fighters had gone door-to-door in Kismayo recruiting children as young as 12 to make a last stand on behalf of the Islamic movement, according to a confidential U.N. report, citing the families of boys taken to the front line town of Jilib, 65 miles north of Kismayo.
Residents told AP that Islamic leader Hassan Dahir Aweys arrived in Jilib with hundreds of his militiamen aboard 45 pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
Captured the capital in June
The Islamic movement took Mogadishu in a battle with clan warlords in June and then advanced across most of the south, often without fighting.
When Ethiopia began providing military aid to the transitional government, Islamic leaders issued a call for foreign Muslims to join their “holy war” against the Ethiopians. Somalis living on the coast reported seeing hundreds of foreigners entering the country.
The turning came when Islamic troops advanced on the interim government’s stronghold in Baidoa, and Ethiopian troops and fighter aircraft went on the attack over the weekend and the situation dramatically reversed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that over the past few days, hospitals and other medical facilities in southern and central Somalia had admitted more than 800 wounded people.
“The ICRC is extremely concerned about civilians caught up in the fighting, wounded people and people detained in connection with the fighting,” said Pascal Hundt, head of the Red Cross delegation in Somalia.
The U.N. refugee agency said Thursday that two boats carrying Somalis and Ethiopians across the Gulf of Aden from northern Somalia capsized late Wednesday as they were being pursued by Yemen’s coast guard. At least 17 people drowned, and 140 were thought missing, it said.
The refugee agency said some of the 357 survivors claimed to be fleeing the fighting in central Somalia. But their boats sailed from ports far to the north in a relatively peaceful area of Somalia, from where a steady stream of economic migrants has set sail in recent years.