Troops from Ethiopia and Somalia's weak transitional government cornered Islamic fighters Wednesday in their stronghold of Mogadishu, and witnesses said the once powerful religious alliance was rapidly disintegrating. Some key Islamist leaders resigned their posts and were seen attempting to flee by boat, officials said early today.
A weeklong assault led by Ethiopia's military, which sent about 4,000 troops into Somalia at the request of the transitional government, has resulted in a surprising reversal of fortune for the Islamists, who have lost nearly all of the territory they seized in the last six months.
The Islamists lost two more key areas Wednesday, including the town of Jawhar and the port city of Kismayo, officials said. Ethiopian and transitional government troops moved within 18 miles of Mogadishu, and government forces were preparing to enter the capital today.
Islamists distributed guns to civilians, urging them to help fight off an attack. But some fighters were rejoining their former clan-based militias; others shaved their beards and removed Islamic caps in an effort to blend in with the population.
Ethiopian and U.S. officials have accused the Islamic alliance of being controlled by international terrorists, including Al Qaeda. Critics said the Islamic Courts Union planned to install a Taliban-style government in Somalia and use it as a springboard to spread religious extremism in Africa.
The Islamists deny such allegations, saying they are victims of Western and anti-Muslim propaganda.
As panicked residents hoarded food, water and gas Wednesday in anticipation of an attack, the African Union chairman called for Ethiopian troops and other foreign elements to withdraw from Somalia.
The Arab League called for a cease-fire.
Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, has not had an effective central government for 15 years. The United Nations-backed transitional government has been trying to establish its authority over the entire country, but the Islamists have presented a major challenge.
The Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders, seized Mogadishu from warlords in June and extended their control over much of the country.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, the Security Council failed to agree on a statement calling for foreign fighters to leave the country, with the United States and Britain supporting Somalia's right to request Ethiopian assistance.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged fighters from nearby countries to keep out of the conflict to improve the chances of both parties returning to talks.
The Security Council this month authorized a regional force to stabilize Somalia, but no countries have offered troops or money.
Encircling the capital
Ethiopian and transitional government officials insisted that the offensive would continue until the Islamists surrendered.
"The fighting will not end as long as one of the terrorists remain in Somalia," said Barre Adan Shire, defense minister for the transitional government.
Somalian government officials said they had no immediate plans to use heavy force to take the capital, a campaign they said could inflict heavy civilian deaths on the city of 2 million people. Instead, Ethiopians and transitional government troops encircled Mogadishu, shut down the seaport and airport, and pressured Islamic leaders to give up.
"We are cutting off the roads and begging them to lay down their weapons," said Abdikarim Farah, the transitional government's ambassador to Ethiopia.
He said the United States was among the countries helping to seal off access along the Indian Ocean coastline.
"We will take over Mogadishu peacefully. I assure you that.... How can they hold?"
U.S. military officials acknowledged that they had conducted operations to bar terrorists from the seas surrounding the Horn of Africa, but noted that the missions had been in place for several years. One military official said there was a Navy presence off the coast of Somalia, but its purpose primarily was anti-piracy and it had been going on for some time.
A spokesman for the transitional government said early today that its troops planned to enter Mogadishu today from two directions. He did not expect much resistance from Islamic soldiers, but there could be clashes with clan militias, which have regrouped in the last 24 hours. There were some reports of renewed fighting among clans.
Much of Ethiopia's campaign, including the capture of nearly two dozen Somalian cities over the last week, occurred without a fight because Islamist troops retreated in advance of Ethiopian tanks, jets and troops.
But battles over a few key cities are thought to have left hundreds dead on both sides. The International Red Cross estimated that 800 were wounded in the last week, but exact casualty figures could not be confirmed.
Shire, the defense minister, said more than 1,000 Islamists had been killed, including 300 foreigners.
Troops retake city
After a three-hour battle Wednesday, Jawhar was seized by transitional government troops led by Mohammed Omar Habeb, also known as Mohammed Dhere, a warlord who was driven out of the city by Islamists this summer.
"We attack Mogadishu Thursday," Dhere told Jawhar residents after retaking the city. "We will catch and behead all the terrorists and militants, just as they behead innocent people."
Transitional government officials, who have clashed with Dhere in the past, cautioned that he would not resume control of Jawhar.
Later in the day, the Islamists reportedly abandoned Kismayo as Ethiopians advanced.
Sheik Mohammed Ibrahim Suley, a spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union, downplayed Wednesday's setbacks.
"Our forces are coming back for tactical retreat," he said. "We are sure we will defeat the enemy and will seize the places we lost."
At a midnight news conference, one of the Islamist leaders, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, asked the people of Mogadishu to maintain peace on the streets no matter what happened.
Earlier, the Islamist leaders said they would turn to guerrilla tactics, including suicide attacks, to defeat the larger, better-equipped Ethiopian military.
Analysts said such threats would not easily intimidate Ethiopia's military leaders, most of whom spent years as rebels fighting in the bush against a former dictatorship that they overthrew in 1991.
"This is a force that toppled the previous government through guerrilla warfare," said Amare Aregawi, editor of the pro-government newspaper the Reporter in Ethiopia. "They are guerrilla war specialists."
Ethiopian and transitional government leaders said their troops had been warmly greeted by Somalis, but some people in Mogadishu warned of a backlash if Ethiopian troops entered the capital.
Others said the Islamists, who had been praised for restoring peace and order to southern Somalia, were quickly losing support among the people.
Thousands of people fled the city. Those who remained huddled at home or attempted to stock up on essentials. Concerns over a prolonged standoff have nearly doubled prices for flour and sugar.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Ethiopia would not keep its forces in Somalia or attempt to occupy its neighbor.
Experts said Meles' comments raised questions about how Somalia's weak transitional government, with about 10,000 soldiers, would be able to maintain control.
Transitional government officials are scrambling to accelerate security recruitment and training programs, and said they would attempt to rehabilitate former Islamist fighters. But many people think U.N. or African Union peacekeepers will be needed.
"They will need substantial support from the international community," said Bereket Simon, an advisor to Meles.
"The whole world should help Somalia stand on its own two feet."
Times staff writer Sanders reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and special correspondent Albadri from Mogadishu. Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Somalia, a country of 9 million people in the Horn of Africa, has not had a functioning central government since 1991. In 1992, the United States intervened during a famine to protect aid deliveries amid clan warfare. The next year, a botched raid made famous by the book and movie "Black Hawk Down" led to the deaths of 18 Army Rangers and the end of the direct U.S. military effort. In June of this year, the Islamic Courts Union drove an alliance of warlords out of Mogadishu and established control over the capital. Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi's transitional government requested assistance from neighboring Ethiopia, which sent its military to roll back advances by the Islamists.
Source: Times research