An Islamic militia alleged to have links to Al Qaeda seized Somalia's capital Monday after weeks of fighting with U.S.-backed secular warlords, raising fears that the nation could fall under the sway of the terrorist network.
The takeover came after 15 years of anarchy in this Horn of Africa nation and posed a direct challenge to a fledging U.N.-backed Somalian government based in Baidoa, 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu.
"We won the fight against the enemy of Islam. Mogadishu is under control of its people," Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said in a radio broadcast. The militia controls a 65-mile radius around the capital.
The Islamic militia is gaining ground as the interim government in Baidoa struggles to assert control outside its base.
The militia is the first group to consolidate control over all of Mogadishu's neighborhoods since the last government collapsed in 1991 and warlords took over, dividing this impoverished country of nearly 9 million people into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.
Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., said the Islamic militia's victory was a turning point.
"It is exactly the same thing that happened with the rise to power of the Taliban" in Afghanistan, he said, adding that the extremists were "using the people's weariness of violence, rape and civil war" to gain support for a government based on Islamic law.
The battle between the militia and the secular alliance has been intensifying in recent months, with more than 300 people killed and 1,700 wounded, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
Alliance leaders could not be reached for comment Monday and had probably fled Mogadishu.
One of them, warlord Mohammed Dheere, was believed to be in neighboring Ethiopia seeking reinforcements.
The United States is backing the alliance in an attempt to root out any Al Qaeda members operating in the Horn of Africa.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, have confirmed cooperating with the warlords.
Abdullahi Yusuf, president of Somalia's transitional national government, has said that Washington is funding the alliance of warlords.
The Bush administration has not confirmed or denied backing the alliance, saying only that it supports those who fight terrorism.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not offer any details about Monday's advance by the militia.
The U.S. government has not carried out any overt action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen during a battle in 1993.