MOGADISHU, Somalia | Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian troops closed in Saturday on the last stronghold of a militant Islamic movement in southern Somalia.
Meanwhile, the Somalian prime minister called for talks to avoid further bloodshed.
About 3,000 Muslim militiamen have taken a stand in the port city of Kismayo, wedged between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean, and the U.S. government thinks they may include four suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Islamic movement’s leader, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, pledged to continue its fight despite losing the capital and other key towns in recent days.
“I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah,” he told residents in Kismayo.
The military advance on Kismayo marks the latest move in a stunning turnaround for Somalia’s government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town, its base of Baidoa in the west. Since Ethiopia’s dramatic entry into the war last week, however, government troops have retaken the capital, Mogadishu, and pushed the Islamists from much of the territory they held for six months.
The Somali and Ethiopian troops, riding in 16 Ethiopian tanks and armored vehicles, were positioned about 75 miles north of Kismayo on Saturday. A trickle of Somalis began to leave the city in anticipation of an attack.
“We are going to advance from different directions to try and encircle the city and force the Islamic group to retreat and so minimize the loss of civilians,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press.
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi called for talks with the Islamic courts movement but said the government was ready to fight if necessary.
The U.S. government — which says four suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in the Islamic movement — has a counterterrorism task force based in neighboring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders.
Before the Islamists established control, Mogadishu had been ruled by competing clans that came together to support the Islamic fighters. Now, some fear the clans could return to fighting one another and may reject the government’s authority. Somalia’s complex clan politics have been the undoing of at least 14 attempts to install a government in the anarchic nation.
Government Tries to Bring Elusive Order to Somalia
Somalia's transitional government is attempting again to bring order to the coastal African nation.
Earlier this week, the transitional government, backed by Ethiopian forces, regained the capitol from the Islamic Courts Union. Debbie Elliott talks to Gwen Thompkins from the Somali capitol of Mogadishu.
Somalia government steps gingerly toward its capital
MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Leaders from Somalia's capital gathered Saturday 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, chosen because the guest of honor, President Abdullahi Yusuf, refuses to enter a notoriously dangerous city that until last week had been under the control of an Islamist alliance. "I will come to Mogadishu once everything is in place," he said.
Though most Islamist fighters fled Thursday when troops from Ethiopia and Somalia's transitional government advanced, so far the government is moving cautiously in finishing the pacification and occupation of the capital. Most government soldiers remain on the city outskirts. Only one government agency, the Interior Ministry, has moved back in.
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 did 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. On Saturday, thousands of Ethiopian-led troops were heading south to the last Islamist holdout in Kismayo, about 280 miles from Mogadishu. Town leaders there briefly drove the Islamists out last week, 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 the alliance's 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.
Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi said Saturday 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, Interior Minister Hussein Aidid said.
An estimated 2,000 armed opponents, including some Islamist fighters, are believed to be hiding in the city, and it is feared that Islamists may have left behind mines or booby traps.
Although the Islamic Courts Union collected the guns of militias and citizens at the beginning of its six-month reign, it redistributed them 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 say they will keep 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 providing security inside the city.
Yusuf, who took a great deal of ribbing Saturday for his reluctance to enter Mogadishu, vowed to immediately implement a disarmament program, by force if necessary. Gedi predicted the guns would be collected within three weeks.
But both men said Mogadishu's leaders must share the responsibility by supporting the government, including the deployment of Ethiopian troops, and by controlling their children. In recent days, much of the anti-Ethiopia looting and rioting has involved teenagers.
"You must welcome the president not only by mouth, but by heart," said Gedi, who was targeted by assassins twice last year during visits to the capital. "In the past, you were welcoming me, but not working with me."