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Somalia's Islamists In Full Retreat

Troops from Ethiopia and the government push them back into the capital. Some leaders may be trying to flee.

December 28, 2006|Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri | Special to The Times

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Troops from Ethiopia and Somalia's weak transitional government cornered Islamic fighters Wednesday in their stronghold of Mogadishu, and witnesses said the once powerful religious alliance was rapidly disintegrating. Some key Islamist leaders resigned their posts and were seen attempting to flee by boat, officials said early today.

A weeklong assault led by Ethiopia's military, which sent about 4,000 troops into Somalia at the request of the transitional government, has resulted in a surprising reversal of fortune for the Islamists, who have lost nearly all of the territory they seized in the last six months.

The Islamists lost two more key areas Wednesday, including the town of Jawhar and the port city of Kismayo, officials said. Ethiopian and transitional government troops moved within 18 miles of Mogadishu, and government forces were preparing to enter the capital today.

Islamists distributed guns to civilians, urging them to help fight off an attack. But some fighters were rejoining their former clan-based militias; others shaved their beards and removed Islamic caps in an effort to blend in with the population.

Ethiopian and U.S. officials have accused the Islamic alliance of being controlled by international terrorists, including Al Qaeda. Critics said the Islamic Courts Union planned to install a Taliban-style government in Somalia and use it as a springboard to spread religious extremism in Africa.

The Islamists deny such allegations, saying they are victims of Western and anti-Muslim propaganda.

As panicked residents hoarded food, water and gas Wednesday in anticipation of an attack, the African Union chairman called for Ethiopian troops and other foreign elements to withdraw from Somalia.

The Arab League called for a cease-fire.

Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, has not had an effective central government for 15 years. The United Nations-backed transitional government has been trying to establish its authority over the entire country, but the Islamists have presented a major challenge.

The Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders, seized Mogadishu from warlords in June and extended their control over much of the country.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, the Security Council failed to agree on a statement calling for foreign fighters to leave the country, with the United States and Britain supporting Somalia's right to request Ethiopian assistance.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged fighters from nearby countries to keep out of the conflict to improve the chances of both parties returning to talks.

The Security Council this month authorized a regional force to stabilize Somalia, but no countries have offered troops or money.

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Encircling the capital

Ethiopian and transitional government officials insisted that the offensive would continue until the Islamists surrendered.

"The fighting will not end as long as one of the terrorists remain in Somalia," said Barre Adan Shire, defense minister for the transitional government.

Somalian government officials said they had no immediate plans to use heavy force to take the capital, a campaign they said could inflict heavy civilian deaths on the city of 2 million people. Instead, Ethiopians and transitional government troops encircled Mogadishu, shut down the seaport and airport, and pressured Islamic leaders to give up.

"We are cutting off the roads and begging them to lay down their weapons," said Abdikarim Farah, the transitional government's ambassador to Ethiopia.

He said the United States was among the countries helping to seal off access along the Indian Ocean coastline.

"We will take over Mogadishu peacefully. I assure you that.... How can they hold?"

U.S. military officials acknowledged that they had conducted operations to bar terrorists from the seas surrounding the Horn of Africa, but noted that the missions had been in place for several years. One military official said there was a Navy presence off the coast of Somalia, but its purpose primarily was anti-piracy and it had been going on for some time.

A spokesman for the transitional government said early today that its troops planned to enter Mogadishu today from two directions. He did not expect much resistance from Islamic soldiers, but there could be clashes with clan militias, which have regrouped in the last 24 hours. There were some reports of renewed fighting among clans.

Much of Ethiopia's campaign, including the capture of nearly two dozen Somalian cities over the last week, occurred without a fight because Islamist troops retreated in advance of Ethiopian tanks, jets and troops.

But battles over a few key cities are thought to have left hundreds dead on both sides. The International Red Cross estimated that 800 were wounded in the last week, but exact casualty figures could not be confirmed.

Shire, the defense minister, said more than 1,000 Islamists had been killed, including 300 foreigners.

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Troops retake city

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