Somalia’s prime minister said Tuesday that rival Islamic fighters have been scattered and that he does not expect any more major fighting for control of the country.
Government forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, were pursuing the remnants of an Islamic militia that until two weeks ago controlled most of southern Somalia and threatened to drive out the internationally-backed government.
But Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said his rivals were scattered and that a group of them offered to surrender on Tuesday.
“We asked out troops to collect them and bring them back home,” he said, refusing to provide any details about how many fighters were involved or where they were.
The rest of “Islamists are scattered in the bush,” he said. “Maybe small fights can take place, but we are trying to destroy them.”
Meanwhile, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament Tuesday that Ethiopia may withdraw its troops in Somalia within weeks.
He told lawmakers said his troops were not peacekeepers and it would be too costly to keep them in Somalia, calling on the international community to act quickly to send in peacekeepers to avoid a vacuum when Ethiopian troops withdraw.
“We have accomplished our mission. After this our area of focus will be withdrawing of our defense forces and continuing the ongoing anti-poverty struggle (in Ethiopia),” Zenawi said.
Stay 'for a few weeks'
“Of course when we do this it does not mean that we will abandon ... the Somali government and its people’s ongoing effort to stabilize peace in the country,” the prime minister said. “We will stay in Somalia for a few weeks, maybe for two weeks.”
Diplomats from the region were working to arrange the speedy deployment of African peacekeepers to help the interim government establish its authority in the country, which has known only anarchy for 15 years.
A three-day period also began Tuesday for Somalis to voluntarily surrender their arms to government-designated points. Ethiopian troops reported that at one such point in the capital, Mogadishu, no one had handed in any weapons in the morning.
As the last remaining stronghold of the Islamic group — the port of Kismayo — was overrun by government troops backed by Ethiopian tanks and MiG fighter jets, the net began closing on suspected al-Qaida fighters believed to be sheltered by the hard-line group.
Defense Minister Col. Barre “Hirale” Aden Shire, speaking in Kismayo Tuesday, said young men who fought with the Islamic militants are “pardoned” and could join Somalia’s national army.
“You have heard a lot of times that the transitional government is weak,” Shire told thousands of Kismayo residents gathered at Freedom Park in the town’s center. “But I will confirm you that the national army are in control of all regions in the country — east, center and south.”
Kenya, U.S. ships on alert
Neighboring Kenya vowed to seal its frontier to prevent any extremists, now wedged between the sea and the border, from escaping following the 13-day military offensive.
Sea routes from southern Somalia were also being patrolled by the U.S. Navy, hunting three al-Qaida suspects believed to be among the Islamic group and wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Anthony Kibuchi, the Kenyan provincial police commander on the border, said Monday that 10 foreigners were arrested Saturday when they tried to cross into Kenya.
“We are interrogating them and we will give more details about them as soon as possible,” he said.
Kibuchi refused to provide further details, but local media reported that eight of the men said they were from Eritrea, while two said they were Canadian. According to a U.N. report, Eritrea sent 2,000 troops to support the Islamic movement, while there have been reports of Somalis with Canadian citizenship joining the Islamic militia.
The military advance was 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.
But with the intervention of Ethiopia, which has one of Africa’s largest armies, the Islamic group has been forced from Mogadishu and other key towns in the past 10 days. Its casualties run into the thousands, Ethiopia said.
Peacekeeping force sought
Diplomats want the international peacekeeping force to replace the muscle of Ethiopia, a largely Christian country long despised in Muslim Somalia. Both countries have fought two wars, the last in 1977, and Somalia lays claim to territories in Ethiopia.
Uganda said it has a battalion of 1,000 troops ready to deploy in a few days. Nigeria has also promised troops, Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
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.
Islamic movement leaders deny having any links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network.