A security vacuum in Somalia's capital

Islamist forces gone, but government slow to enter Mogadishu

December 31, 2006|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Leaders from Somalia's capital gathered yesterday where matters of importance are often debated and settled here: under the shade of a thorny aqab tree.

This one was at a bombed-out military barracks on the edge of Mogadishu, because the guest of honor, Somalian President Abdullahi Yusuf, refuses to enter a notoriously dangerous city that until two weeks ago had been under the control of an Islamic alliance. "I will come to Mogadishu once everything is in place," he said.

Although most Islamist fighters fled Thursday when troops from Ethiopia and Somalia's transitional government advanced, the government is moving cautiously in finishing the pacification and occupation of Mogadishu. Most government soldiers remain on the city outskirts. Only one government agency, the Interior Ministry, has relocated.

The security vacuum has led to sporadic looting and rioting. Local leaders warned that the transitional government might lose control of the capital if it does not act quickly to solidify its victory.

"People are already hiding their guns underground," said Ibrahim Shawey, the former mayor of Mogadishu. "I urge the government to use force [to disarm the city], rather than negotiate."

Part of the delay is strategic, officials said, with government forces needed elsewhere in the country. Yesterday, thousands of Ethiopian-led troops were heading south to the last Islamist holdout in Kismayo, about 180 miles from Mogadishu. Town leaders there briefly drove out the Islamists two weeks ago, but the region was overwhelmed again by hard-line fighters after they fled the capital.

Leaders of the Islamic Courts Union, supported by an extremist faction known as Shabab and some suspected foreign fighters, are threatening to make a last stand against Ethiopian soldiers in the region.

"Islamic Court officials will not surrender," said Islamic Courts Chairman Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. "We will defend ourselves and defeat the enemy." He issued similar threats in Mogadishu, only to abandon the capital without a fight.

Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said yesterday that a battle was possible if the Islamists refused to give up or flee. "If remnants try to attack, bloodshed will take place," he said.

But the possible final showdown was sapping needed troops inside Mogadishu. Pacifying the capital will not be easy, said Somalian Interior Minister Hussein Aideed. An estimated 2,000 armed hostile elements, including some Islamic fighters, are believed to be hiding in Mogadishu. It is feared that Islamists might have left behind mines or booby-traps.

Although the Islamic Courts had collected all guns from private militias and citizens at the beginning of its six-month reign, the alliance redistributed the weapons shortly before leaving the city. As a result, Mogadishu is once again awash in guns, particularly among two clans with a history of animosity toward the transitional government.

Many people say they will not give up their weapons. "I'll never give up my gun, either to the government or to the Ethiopians," said Iman Adan, 31, who worked at a high school before joining the Islamic Courts. "I'm ready to fight or die." Government officials won't say how many troops are now providing security inside the city.

Yusuf, who took a great deal of ribbing yesterday for his reluctance to enter Mogadishu, vowed to immediately implement a disarmament program, by force if necessary.

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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