Islamic militia tightens grip on Mogadishu
A junior minister handed control of the Somali capital’s sea port to Islamic militia on Wednesday, a day after they defeated hundreds of fighters who were resisting the group’s strict Qur’anic rule.
Mohamed Jama Furuh, Deputy Ports Minister in the weak transitional government, handed over the Mogadishu port after days of negotiations with the radical Supreme Islamic Courts Council, whose fighters consolidated its grip on Mogadishu following ferocious fighting that ended on Tuesday.
The Islamic group took over the national asset, despite a warning issued by regional leaders last month that Somali armed groups must hand over to the beleaguered transitional government sea and air ports, together with other national assets.
Both the national sea port and airport in Mogadishu had been closed for the past 15 years, after rival armed groups in the capital failed to agree on who should run the facilities.
“We are happy and would like to see all other government infrastructure be handed over like this,” said Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, one of the leaders of the Islamic group whose fighters wrested control of Mogadishu from secular warlords in June.
On Wednesday, hundreds of people returned to homes they fled to escape the latest fighting that erupted on Sunday, when Islamic fighters sought to subdue rivals. The fighting killed more than 70 people and wounded 150, and the death toll was expected to rise as severely wounded victims streamed into hospitals. The bloodshed on Tuesday was the latest sign that the increasingly radical militia would not tolerate opposition to its tightening grip on power.
As in past fighting, many of the victims were noncombatants caught by stray shells.
Hawa Mohamed said a mortar shell killed her 85-year-old grandmother, and the roadblocks erected during the battles prevented the family from burying her.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since opposition leaders ousted long-time dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. They then turned on each other, carving this nation of an estimated eight million people into rival fiefdoms.
The Islamic fundamentalists stepped into the vacuum, projecting themselves as an alternative military and political power.
This volatile nation in the Horn of Africa has been a particular concern to the United States, which has long-standing fears that Somalia will become a refuge for members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, much like Afghanistan did in the late 1990s.
The city was quiet after the surrender and members of the Islamic militia were going house to house searching for any weapons that rival fighters might have hidden.
US officials had cooperated with the ousted warlords, hoping to capture three al-Qaeda leaders allegedly protected by the Islamic council who are accused in the deadly 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Islamic fighters prevailed, taking the US by surprise and further marginalising the country’s interim government. The interim body was established with the help of the United Nations but is powerless outside its base in Baidoa.
Relations were deteriorating between the Islamic fighters and the interim government, which said it would not talk with the militia’s radical leader when the two sides meet on Saturday in Sudan to negotiate a full peace accord.
The UN special representative for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, told the Security Council in New York this week that the rise of “hard-liners” is threatening the peace process.
The Islamic militia has grown increasingly radical since seizing Mogadishu and establishing strict courts based on the Qur’an. On Tuesday, Ahmed said Somalis should be ready for a holy war against neighbouring Ethiopia, Somalia’s long-time enemy.
The Islamists have repeatedly accused Ethiopia of sending troops across the border to boost the transitional government. Somalia’s interim President, Abdullahi Yusuf, is allied with Ethiopia and has asked for its support.
On Tuesday, a former member of the secular alliance, Mohamed Dheere, was meeting the interim government after spending weeks in Ethiopia trying to build support there to overcome the Islamic militia. The topics of discussion were not released.
Ethiopia denies sending troops. “The Islamic courts use these allegations to divert the truth to hide the fact that there are terrorists in Somalia,” said Solomon Abebe, spokesperson for Ethiopia’s foreign ministry.—Sapa-AP
Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu and Les Neuhaus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report