Somalian Islamic fighters flee south toward Kenya
Islamic fighters abandoned their final stronghold around the southern port of Kismayo and were fleeing south toward Kenya, witnesses and government officials said early today.
Residents reportedly took to the streets to welcome the advancing government and Ethiopian forces, but there also were reports of looting and violence, particularly at the Islamic Courts Union’s abandoned military base.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said, “The Islamists have fled Kismayo, and our troops are on the way.”
Ethiopian-led troops had clashed Sunday night and early today with Islamist fighters around the nearby town of Jilib.
Officials in Somalia’s transitional government, flush with success from last week’s taking of Mogadishu, the capital, had predicted a quick victory against remnants of the Islamic courts, a once-powerful alliance of religious leaders that U.S. officials accused of having terrorist ties.
“Most are quitting,” Dinari said earlier. “They’re trapped. We want to clean this up as quickly as possible.”
Tough-talking Islamists, who said they abandoned Mogadishu to avoid civilian casualties, said they would not to give up as easily this time. But the vow proved hollow.
In a telephone interview from Jilib, Sheik Mohammed Ibrahim Suley, a spokesman for the Islamic courts, said alliance fighters would soon rise up in all parts of Somalia.
“The enemy will not rest,” he said.
Islamic fighters, estimated to number 500 to 2,000, regrouped near Kismayo, hiding in sparsely populated areas near the border with Kenya, officials and witnesses said.
About 70 foreign fighters are believed to be among them, including three suspects in the U.S. Embassy bombing attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, government officials said Sunday. At least one of the suspects reportedly was being treated for injuries in a Kismayo hospital.
The three Al Qaeda suspects -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comoros, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan of Kenya and Abu Taha al-Sudani of Sudan -- were indicted in the United States for the bombings of the embassies that killed hundreds.
Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi told the Associated Press on Sunday that he had asked the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, to help secure Kenya’s border with Somalia to prevent the three from escaping.
A White House spokesman declined to speak about the situation in Kismayo, but made clear that the Bush administration would be pleased if individuals responsible for the embassy bombings were captured.
“We hope that the men responsible for the bombing are brought to justice,” said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.
Somalia, located on the Horn of Africa, in effect has been without a functioning national government since 1991. The Islamic militias took control of the capital during the summer, pushing out feuding warlords and challenging the weak transitional government, which was set up in 2004 but until now has never controlled most of the country. Ethiopia, which fears the spread of religious extremism in neighboring Somalia, sent troops across the border in December.
The fighting near Jilib, a town of about 10,000, began Sunday evening when more than 2,000 government troops began closing in from the north and west, attacking Islamist positions. Witnesses said Islamists tried to defend themselves with artillery and antiaircraft weapons.
But government officials said the Islamic fighters were little match for the Ethiopia’s well-equipped army, with tanks, jets and armored personnel carriers.
Government troops began moving south Saturday; their convoy was slowed by mines left by fleeing Islamists.
Jilib residents began fleeing over the weekend, ignoring calls from Islamic leaders to take up arms and fight government troops. As many as half of the residents are reported to have left.
By late Sunday, fighting had spread to Kismayo, where clashes were reported between Islamists and government loyalists, witnesses said.
Some Islamic courts leaders had already escaped into Kenya, including Ibrahim Hassan Addou, the group’s foreign minister, Dinari said. Others were fleeing to an island off the coast, he said.
U.S. Navy ships routinely patrol the seas around the Horn of Africa as part of an operation based in Djibouti.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who said he dispatched more than 4,000 troops at the request of the Somalian transitional government, said captured Islamic leaders would be brought to justice in Somalian or Ethiopian courts.
Times staff writer Jonathan Peterson in Washington and special correspondent Abukar Albadri in Mogadishu contributed to this report.