MOGADISHU, Somalia - Somalia's prime minister said Sunday that the suspects in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa are sheltering in the stronghold of his country's militant Islamic movement.
"If we capture them alive we will hand them over to the United States," Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told The Associated Press.
The three men — Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani, a Sudanese — are al-Qaida suspects and are under U.S. indictment for the 1998 bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds of people.
"We know they are in Kismayo," Gedi said. "We would like to capture or kill these guys at any cost. They are the root of the problem."
Gedi said he had spoken Sunday to the U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, about ensuring the Kenyan border with Somalia is sealed to prevent the three escaping. "We will get them," he said.
Thousands of Somalis began fleeing Sunday as heavily armed Ethiopian troops supported by tanks and MiG fighter jets closed in on the Islamic movement's last remaining stronghold.
Up to 2,000 people, carrying what they could, streamed out of the southern Somali town of Jilib, the gateway to the Islamic group's coastal stronghold, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters were preparing for a final bloody showdown.
"The Islamic militia told us they are committed to defend the town to the death, so we have no other option but to flee", said Ilse Ali Ilweyn, a father of six who lives in Jilib, the gateway town to Kismayo, located 65 miles to the south.
In the last 10 days, the Islamic group has been forced from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of attacks led by Ethiopia, the region's greatest military power. Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian allies accuse the Islamic group of harboring extremists linked to al-Qaida.
The Islamic movement has denied any links to Osama bin Laden's terror network.
In a taped message posted on the Internet Saturday, the deputy leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, called on Somali Muslims and other Muslims throughout the world to continue the fight against "infidels and crusaders."
Gedi accused al-Zawahri of trying to destabilize Somalia and its neighbors.
Although Gedi called for dialogue with the Islamic group Saturday, he warned that any resistance by the Islamic group would be met with force. In Kenya, diplomatic efforts were under way to try and secure a peaceful end to the 12-day conflict.
Ibrahim Hassan Adow, the Islamic group's foreign affairs chief, is in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, for talks, Islamic officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The speaker of the transitional government's parliament, Sheik Sharif Hassan Aden, who has close sympathies with the Islamic group, is also in Kenya for talks.
The military advance marks a stunning turnaround for Somalia's government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town, its base of Baidoa, while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia.
The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, has pledged to continue its fight, despite military losses. The group wants to transform Somalia into a strict Islamic state.
"I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the group's leader, told residents in Kismayo Saturday.
"We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy," he added.
Islamic officials claimed they still had fighters in the capital and were ready for attacks. Late Saturday, an unexplained blast in the capital left one woman dead and two others wounded.
The Ethiopian-backed interim government hopes to close the net before the Islamists can slip away amid reports that some foreign fighters are trying to flee through neighboring Kenya or by boat.
Ethiopia is a close ally of the United States, which is keen to capture suspected al-Qaida terrorists in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. government has a counterterrorism task force based in neighboring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders.
The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet also has a maritime task force patrolling international waters off the Somali coast. Gedi said his government was in daily contact with the U.S.
Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government's reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population. Ethiopia and Somalia fought bloody wars in 1964 and 1977.