Thu, Jun 08, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Warlords quickly losing control of Somalia's capital

DOWN AND NEARLY OUT Despite being run out of major parts of Mogadishu, US-backed warlords are still trying to hold what little area they have left

AFP , MOGADISHU

Heavily armed Islamic gunmen and fighters loyal to a US-backed warlord alliance faced each other in a tense standoff in Somalia on Tuesday after Muslim militia claimed control of the lawless capital.

A day after the Islamists declared victory following four months of bloody battles with the alliance for control of Mogadishu, the city was fractured along clan lines with remaining warlords vowing not to bow to demands to surrender.

The two camps held rival rallies in the city as hundreds of Islamic fighters camped outside the warlords' last stronghold of Jowhar, about 90km north of Mogadishu, awaiting orders to attack the town, witnesses said.

About 500 Muslim militiamen backed by more than 100 machine-gun mounted pick-ups were about 10km south of Jowhar in Kalinow village, they said.

A short distance away at the Kongo military base, an equal number of gunmen loyal to Mohamad Dheere -- the warlord who controls Jowhar -- readied for a potential onslaught, they said.

"The two groups are about 3km apart," said one elder, stressing that both sides were under heavy pressure not to attack. "The alliance is ready to defend Jowhar but it is unlikely they will fight soon."

Jowhar is the most significant remaining position held by the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), but holdout warlords in the capital refused to accept the fall of Mogadishu.

Although there was no fighting, clan elders in northern Mogadishu voiced support for the alliance and warned miltias affiliated with the city's 11 Islamic courts to steer clear of their territory.

Resistance was being led by the Abgal sub-clan, a faction of the larger Hawiye tribe to which most people living in Mogadishu belong, which controls the northern part of the city.

About 1,500 people gathered in a stadium in Abgal territory to protest against the Islamists, chanting, "We will defend northern Mogadishu from any attack" and "We want our own Islamic courts," witnesses said.

At the rally, warlords Musa Sudi Yalahow and Bashir Raghe Shirar, two of the three holdouts, insisted the ARPCT was alive and well despite its apparent military defeat at the hands of the Islamists.

"We shall never support the courts in Mogadishu and we demand a complete withdrawal of Islamic militia from our territory," Yalahow said.

At the far northern edge of Mogadishu, hundreds of Muslims gathered to hear Islamic leaders demand the immediate surrender of Yalohow and Shirar and restate their intention to bring the entire city under Sharia law.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the leader of Islamic courts vowed to push for an imposition of Sharia across Somalia, a nation of about 10 million people.

But Shirar told AFP earlier he would never give up and repeated charges the Islamists were harboring extremists, including Al-Qaeda members.

The warlord alliance was created in February with US support in a bid to curb the growing influence of the Islamic courts, hunt down the extremists they are accused of harboring and disrupt possible plans for terrorist attacks.

Immediately after its formation, the ARPCT began battling the Islamists, who declared a holy war against the warlords. At least 347 people were killed and more than 1,500 wounded in the four months of clashes that followed.

Washington has never publicly confirmed or denied its support for the alliance but US officials said they had given the warlords money and intelligence to help to rein in "creeping Talibanization" in Somalia.

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