SOMALIAN TROOPS TAKE THEIR CAPITAL

Special to The Times

Somalia's beleaguered capital fell early today to Ethiopian and Somalian government troops who marched quietly into the city before dawn and took control without firing a shot.

An Islamic alliance that had controlled Mogadishu and much of the country evaporated Thursday after a string of military losses, and in the security vacuum violent looting broke out in the capital. Residents awoke to find forces from Ethiopia and Somalia's United Nations-backed transitional government taking up positions.

The transitional government was formed in 2004 to give the Horn of Africa country its first effective, nationwide administration since 1991, but today was the first time its troops were able to enter Mogadishu.

"The fighting is over," Ali Mohammed Gedi, prime minister of the transitional government, said late Thursday, shortly before hundreds of troops began pouring into the city. They secured the seaport, the airport and the main road into the city.

Officials of the government spent most of Thursday meeting with clan leaders to ensure that there would be no remnants of the Islamist forces hiding in Mogadishu when their troops entered, and that residents would welcome the forces.

In reality, the reception was mixed. There were some cheers, but there were also youths throwing stones and shouting at soldiers, particularly the Ethiopians.

"Ethiopia is my enemy. My mother and father told me they are the enemy. I will fight against them," said Abdi Dhaqani, 12.

Mogadishu temporarily reverted to its familiar clan-based chaos as the Islamic Courts Union disintegrated and former warlords tried to resume their former positions of power.

Youths rampaged in the streets, stealing cellphones, looting homes and setting up checkpoints. Clan militias reclaimed their old neighborhoods. Offices and homes of the leaders of the Islamic alliance bore the brunt of the looting.

Later this morning, the streets grew quiet, with no sign of looting and most people staying indoors. Troops urged residents to stay calm and said peace would be restored within two days.

It was unclear whether the weak transitional government and its small military could impose lasting order on Mogadishu, much less the rest of Somalia. Officials of neighboring Ethiopia, whose forces provided most of the firepower to oust the Islamic alliance, said they would help but not remain in Somalia for long.

Mogadishu residents said the looting made them fearful about another long period of instability.

"We are going back to the former chaos and violence," said Ilyas Ahmed, whose brother was killed Thursday in a robbery. "The courts were not good, but at least we had security."

Gedi called for the looting and violence to end. "Anybody found disturbing the security will be met with swift punishment," he said.

U.S. and Ethiopian officials said the Islamists had been planning to establish a Taliban-style regime and use Somalia as a base to launch terrorist attacks. The Islamists said they were trying to restore peace and stability. In the last six months, they had seized Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia.

On Thursday, after days of military losses that left it confined to Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union officially disbanded. As he left Mogadishu, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the chairman of the Courts Union, said Islamists were leaving to avoid a battle that could kill civilians. Former fighters, many of whom ditched their uniforms and shaved their beards, expressed disappointment.

"I joined them because I thought they wanted to install an Islamic government in Somalia," said Mursal Mohammed, 27. "But they had different ambitions. They wanted to fight against Ethiopia and get back Somalian territory. They misled me."

Some extremist elements of the Courts Union reportedly were refusing to give up and were seen heading south toward the port city of Kismayo, where they may attempt to regroup or escape. As many as 4,000 fighters, including the fundamentalist Shabab faction that is accused of killing an Italian nun in September, have refused to give up, officials said.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his soldiers were pursuing the fighters, who he said included Eritreans and other foreigners.

He said his troops would help the transitional government restore peace in Mogadishu.

"We will not let Mogadishu burn," he said. But he added that the international community needed to finish putting Somalia on its feet. He said Ethiopia would not become bogged down in an Iraq-style occupation.

"We don't believe is it our mission to reconstruct Somalia -- militarily, politically or otherwise," Meles said. "What Somalia needs is beyond our capacity now. What Somalia needs now is massive humanitarian assistance. We cannot provide that."

He predicted that Ethiopian troops would remain in Somalia for days or weeks. "We are certainly not planning to stay there for months," he said.

Ethiopia formally entered Somalia's worsening civil war a week ago, siding with the transitional government against the alliance of Islamic leaders.

Amid reports that former Mogadishu clan leaders were reassuming positions of power, Meles warned against allowing the city to fracture into the tribal fiefdoms that existed for years.

Ethiopian leaders say the decision to take military action in Somalia was an effort to prevent the spread of religious extremism. But some worry that Ethiopia will become a target for Islamic militants. Ethiopia's population is about evenly split between Christians and Muslims, and the war has been unpopular with some of the country's Muslims.

Ethiopian-led troops began their assault near the border and reached the capital Wednesday.

As many as 3,000 Islamist fighters were killed and 5,000 wounded, Meles said. Ethiopian casualties were estimated at 100 to 500, he said.

Thousands have fled the fighting, worsening Somalia's dire conditions. At least 17 people were killed and 140 were missing after Yemeni security forces opened fire on two boats packed with people fleeing Somalia, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sanders reported from Baidoa, Somalia, and special correspondent Albadri from Mogadishu.

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