December 26, 2006

Islamic forces retreat in Somalia

December 26, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Islamic fighters attempting to wrest power from Somalia's internationally recognized government retreated from the main front line early Tuesday, witnesses said, a day after Ethiopian fighter jets bombed the country's two main international airports.

Troops loyal to the Council of Islamic Courts withdrew more than 30 miles to the southeast from Daynuney, a town just south of Baidoa, the government headquarters.

The Islamic forces also abandoned their main stronghold in Bur Haqaba and were forming convoys headed toward the capital, Mogadishu, residents in villages along the road told The Associated Press by telephone.

"We woke up from our sleep this morning and the town was empty of troops, not a single Islamic fighter," Ibrahim Mohamed Aden, a resident of Bur Haqaba said.

On Monday, Russian-made jets swept low over the capital at midmorning, dropping two bombs on Mogadishu International Airport, part of a major escalation in the week-old fighting. The leader of the Islamic militia, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, flew into the airport shortly after the attack; it was not clear if he was an intended target.

Air strikes also hit Baledogle Airport outside Mogadishu.

"We heard the sound of the jets and then they pounded," said Abdi Mudey, a soldier with the Council of Islamic Courts, which has seized the capital and much of southern Somalia since June.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy. Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the arid, impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.

But the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered about 140 miles northeast of Mogadishu. The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement seized power.

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. A recent U.N. report said 10 countries have been supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict, using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. Some analysts also fear that the courts movement hopes to make Somalia a third front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in militant Islam's war against the West.

The Islamic group's often severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent, to some, of Afghanistan's Taliban regime -- ousted by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden. The U.S. government says four al Qaeda leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are now leaders in the Islamic militia.

On Ethiopian television Monday night, the defense ministry said troops would move toward the city of Jowhar, about 55 miles from Mogadishu. Later, Ethiopia made a push in that direction, capturing the villages of Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor, according Yusuf Ahmed Ali, a businessman in Adadow.

As its military forces advanced against militia fighters, Somalia's government also sought to seal its borders in order to prevent foreign Islamic militants from joining the Islamic courts forces.

Residents living along Somalia's coast have seen hundreds of militants arriving by boat, apparently in answer to calls by religious leaders to wage a holy war against Ethiopia.

It seems unlikely the government can blockade Somalia's 1,860-mile coastline -- the longest in Africa. But the closures could hamper humanitarian aid deliveries to the country, where one in five children dies before age 5 from a preventable disease.

The U.N. World Food Program airlifted several tons of food and other aid into Somalia on Monday, but had not yet been notified of any border closings, agency spokesman Peter Smerdon said.

The Islamic militia, which grew out of a network of ad hoc Muslim courts, has brought a measure of law to a lawless country: The international airport reopened in July after being closed for a decade.

But leaders of the Islamic courts movement alarmed the country's neighbors by threatening to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Many Somalis are enraged by Ethiopian intervention because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. Somalia is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while Ethiopia has a large Christian minority.

Despite this friction, the Somali government -- which has failed to assert any real control since it was formed two years ago -- relies on its neighbor's military strength.

Earlier, Ethiopia had said it sent advisers to bolster the Somali government's outgunned military forces, but denied dispatching combat troops. The U.N., though, estimates that Ethiopia has 8,000 troops in the country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Sunday that his country was "forced to enter a war" with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts after the group declared holy war on Ethiopia.

So far, Ethiopian and Somali troops have used MiG jet fighters and artillery to attack the Islamists, who have no military aircraft and can return fire only with much smaller mortars and recoilless rifles.

Meles has said he does not intend to keep his forces in Somalia for long, perhaps only a few weeks. He has told visiting dignitaries that his goal is to damage the courts' military capabilities, take away their sense of invincibility and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing.

Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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