MOGADISHU, Somalia — Thousands of Somalian and Ethiopian troops closed in Saturday on the last remaining stronghold of a militant Islamic movement in southern Somalia, as the prime minister called for talks to avoid further bloodshed.
Some 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 believes 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 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 Somalian and Ethiopian troops, riding in 16 Ethiopian tanks and armoured vehicles, were positioned about 120 kilometres 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.
“We are calling on the Somali representatives of the Islamic courts for dialogue and to join us,” Gedi said on the outskirts of the capital, where he was meeting with local clan elders to smooth the handover of the city. But he added: “If the remnants of the terrorists try to attack, yes of course bloodshed will take place.”
On Friday, Gedi had ruled out immediate talks, even after key Islamic officials travelled to Kenya for possible peace negotiations.
“We cannot talk peace after all this bloodshed,” he told The Associated Press at the time.
The conflict in Somalia has drawn the attention of the United States, which is eager to capture suspected al-Qaida terrorists in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet has a maritime task force patrolling international waters off the Somali coast. Gedi said his government was in daily contact with the Americans.
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 neighbouring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders.
Somalia’s President Abdullahi Yusuf said Saturday, meanwhile, that the government was continuing its plans to move to the Somalian capital. He also pledged to bring more troops to help secure the region, while Gedi also said he expects to disarm militias in the city within three weeks.
Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government’s reliance on neighbouring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of Africa’s largest armies. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977.
In Mogadishu, protesters in some neighbourhoods denounced the government on Saturday, while about 300 people held a rally in another area in support of the troops. Many were holding signs and chanting, “We support the government.”
Before the Islamists established control, Mogadishu had been ruled by competing clans who 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 this violent, anarchic country.
Somalia will not be like Afghanistan and Iraq: Abdulahi Yusuf
BAIDOA: Somalia`s interim president Abdulahi Yusuf Ahmed said Somalia will not be like Afghanistan and Iraq - his government won in the fighting with Islamist movement with the help of Ethiopian forces.
In news conference held in Baidoa city, the base of the transitional federal government, shortly after meeting with the Ethiopian foreign minister Siyoum Mesfin in Biadoa, president Yusuf said that his government could now handle the situation in Somalia, if needed it will ask for African troops to help the government establish the security.
Siyoum Mesfin, the Ethiopian foreign minister met with President Abdulahi Yusuf over the political issues between Somalia and Ethiopia and best ways to promote peace in the region in prevent of any terrorist actions in horn of Africa.
Mr. Yusuf thanked Ethiopian government for the help it offered interim government in order to stand on its feet and control whole Somalia.
"My government in collaboration with its neighbor (Ethiopian government) won to oust the so-called Islamic Courts and its terrorist groups from the capital and now my government is with its people working together how to restore peace and security," Yusuf said.
President Yusuf also said that he had raised with the Ethiopian foreign minister over issues relating to how to bring peace and stability in the region and disarm the militias and then promote relations between Somalia and Ethiopia.
Siyoum Mesfin and his delegation went back to Addis Ababa after talks.
It is the second time that Ethiopian foreign minister visited Baidoa, the seat of the transitional federal government during the Ethiopian military mission against the Islamic Courts in Somalia.
Somalia-bound relief plane crashes in Kenya, 3 escape
NAIROBI, Dec. 30 (Xinhua) -- Three crew members survived narrowly Saturday in a plane crash which occurred near a Kenyan police training barrack in the outskirts of Nairobi.
The Red Cross charter cargo plane, a 5YSRK plane, owned by a Kenyan aviation firm, the Sky Relief Services, was ferrying relief supplies to Somalia's Baidoa.
Kenyan airport personnel, who responded to the distress call from the pilot, rescued the three crewmen. The Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority, tasked with the regulation of the airspace, has launched investigations into the crash.
"The pilot said it was engine trouble, but investigations were still continuing," a Kenyan civil aviation source said. The crash occurred in the early morning Saturday, as light rains and bad weather was reported across Nairobi.
"Swift action by the Kenya Airports Authority fire and rescue services saved the three crew members from near death," said Dominic Ngigi, the Kenya Airports Authority spokesman after the accident.
Somalia has seen an escalation of conflict over the past week with Islamic militia fighting Ethiopian and pro-Somali interim government troops, triggering world aid agencies' concern about the mishap of the civilians already worsened by severe floods this year.
Ethiopia denies having agenda in Somalia
Ethiopia does not have any agenda in Somalia but wants to avert the threat posed to its sovereignty by the extremist leadership of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the Ministry of Information said on Saturday.
The ministry said in a weekly statement that the principal mission of Ethiopian forces is dissolving the war declared by the extremist leadership of the UIC and ensuring the sovereignty of Ethiopia, adding that they have no intention of a prolonged stay inside Somalia.
"Ethiopia believes that the task of bringing about reliable and lasting peace and development in Somalia is the responsibility of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its people," the statement said.
"This position of Ethiopia will enable it to enhance friendly ties and cooperation between the peoples of the two countries," said the ministry.
"The war declared by forces of destruction in Somalia has been averted successfully," it said.
"Their hostile acts and rhetoric witnessed in the last six months have been routed by the joint counteroffensive measures of the Ethiopian Defense Forces and the TFG forces."
On Friday, Somalia's interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamad Ghedi entered the Somali capital Mogadishu, marking the first time the country's transitional government has been in a position to exercise full authority in the capital.
Several thousands militiamen loyal to the UIC have now abandoned the city for their last stronghold in the port of Kismayo, 500 km to the south.
But the UIC has said their retreat is only a tactic and they would fight a long battle.