Islamists are ousted from Somali capital

`Fighting is over,' premier says

looting breaks out

December 29, 2006|By Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri | Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri,Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somalia's beleaguered capital fell early today to Ethiopian and Somali 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 yesterday after a string of military losses, and in the security vacuum, violent looting broke out in the capital. Residents awoke this morning to find the Ethiopians and troops of Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government taking 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 actually able to enter Mogadishu.

"The fighting is over," Ali Mohammed Gedi, prime minister of the transitional government, declared late yesterday, shortly before hundreds of troops began pouring into the city.

Officials of the government spent most of yesterday meeting with clan leaders to ensure there would be no remnants of the Islamic forces hiding in Mogadishu when they entered, and that the local population would welcome their soldiers.

Mogadishu temporarily reverted to its familiar clan-based chaos as the Islamic Courts Union disintegrated and former warlords attempted to resume their positions of power. Angry youths rampaged in the streets, stealing mobile phones, looting homes and setting up checkpoints. Clan militias reclaimed their old neighborhoods. Offices and homes of the leaders of the former Islamic alliance bore the brunt of the looting.

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

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

"We are going back to the former chaos and violence," said Ilyas Ahmed, whose brother was killed yesterday during a cell-phone 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 accused the Islamists of plotting to establish a Taliban-style regime and use Somalia as a base to launch terrorist attacks. Islamists said they were merely trying to restore peace and stability to Somalia. Over the past six months they had seized Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia.

Yesterday, after days of military losses that left it bottled up in Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union officially disbanded. As he left Mogadishu, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the chairman of the courts, said Islamists were leaving to avoid a battle that might have killed 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 Somali territory. They misled me."

Some extremist elements of the courts union were reportedly 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 yesterday his soldiers were in hot pursuit of the fighters, which he said included Eritreans and other foreigners.

Meles said his troops would assist the transitional government restore peace in Mogadishu.

"We will not let Mogadishu burn," he said, adding that the international community must finish the job of putting Somalia back on its feet. He said Ethiopia would not become bogged down in an Iraq-style occupation.

"We don't believe it is 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."

Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri write for the Los Angeles Times.

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