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Somali PM: Last Islamic stronghold captured

Somali government troops backed by Ethiopian tanks and MiG fighter jets have captured the last major stronghold of a militant Islamic movement, the prime minister said Monday.
A man, injured by violence during the pull-out of the Islamic Courts from Mogadishu receives treatment at the Medina hospital in Mogadishu on Sunday Dec. 31.
A man, injured by violence during the pull-out of the Islamic Courts from Mogadishu receives treatment at the Medina hospital in Mogadishu on Sunday Dec. 31.Guy Calaf / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Somali government troops backed by Ethiopian soldiers on Monday took over what had been the last major stronghold of country's militant Islamic movement, residents said.

To cheering and waving crowds, well-armed troops drove into Kismayo after clearing roads laced with land mines. Earlier, the Islamic fighters had abandoned the southern coastal city, fleeing a 13-day military onslaught by government troops backed by Ethiopian tanks and MiG fighter jets.

"We have entered and captured the city," Maj. Gen. Ahmed Musa told The Associated Press while riding aboard a truck into Kismayo, where an estimated 3,000 hard-line Islamic fighters had vowed to make a last stand but melted away under artillery fire.

Islamic forces have promised to wage an Iraq-style guerrilla war if defeated.

Islamic leaders wanted
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi offered an amnesty to the hundreds of Islamic fighters fleeing south toward the Kenyan border, 100 miles away, if they gave themselves up.

But he said leaders of the Islamic group and the foreign fighters believed to be among their ranks will face justice.

He also ordered a countrywide disarmament that comes into effect Tuesday, an immense task in Somalia which is awash with weapons after a 15-year civil war.

"The warlord era in Somalia is now over," Gedi said at a news conference in the recently captured capital, Mogadishu, giving a three-day deadline for the handing over of all weapons.

Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi speaks to journalists at a news conference in Mogadishu
Somalia's Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi speaks to journalists at a news conference in Mogadishu, January 1, 2007. Defeated Somali Islamists fled their defences near a southern town and headed towards the Kenyan border on Monday in what looked like the end of a nearly two-week war with the Ethiopian-backed government. REUTERS/Shabelle Media (SOMALIA)Shabelle Media / X02084

The prime minister told journalists that Somalia's infamous warlords and clan militias must also abide by the order to give up weapons.

"If they fail to heed the orders of the government, the government will forcefully extract weapons from them," he added.

Gedi also appealed for humanitarian aid for his country and repeated calls for an African Union peacekeeping force.

Among the Islamic fighters are believed to be three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies. The government hoped to catch them before they slipped out of the country.

The United States has also been asked to provide air and sea surveillance to prevent suspected extremists from escaping, Somali officials said.

Meanwhile senior Western diplomats were pushing for the deployment of an African-led peacekeeping force in Somalia as soon as possible to help stabilize the country, said a U.S. government official on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to the media.

'Out of control'
In Kismayo, hundreds of gunmen who apparently deserted from the Islamic movement began looting the warehouses where the Council of Islamic Courts had stored supplies, including weapons and ammunition.

"Everything is out of control, everyone has a gun and gangs are looting everything now that the Islamists have left," businessman Sheik Musa Salad said.

The Islamic forces have a base near the Kenyan border on a small peninsula called Ras Kamboni, where there is a pier for traditional oceangoing boats known as dhows.

Ethiopian MiG fighter jets flew low over the ocean looking for boats that might be carrying the escaping Islamic fighters.

Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, in his New Year's message, called for an urgent summit of the east African regional body IGAD to discus the Somali crisis.

The Islamic forces began to disintegrate after a night of artillery attacks at the front line and following a mutiny within their ranks, witnesses said.

In the past 10 days, the Islamic group has been forced from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of attacks led by Ethiopia, a Christian country with one of Africa's largest armies.

Links to al-Qaida?
Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian allies have long accused Islamic militias of harboring al-Qaida, and the U.S. government has said the 1998 bombers have become leaders in the Islamic movement in Africa.

"If we capture them alive we will hand them over to the United States," Gedi said.

Islamic movement leaders deny having any links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

But in a recorded message posted on the Internet on Saturday, deputy al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri called on Somalia's Muslims and other Muslims worldwide to continue the fight against "infidels and crusaders."

Gedi accused al-Zawahri of trying to destabilize Somalia and its neighbors.

Stunning turnaround
The military advance marked a stunning turnaround for Somalia's government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town -- its base of Baidoa -- while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia.

The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, wants to transform Somalia into a strict Islamic state.

Islamic officials said they still had fighters in the capital and were ready for warfare.