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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Islamic militia capture warlord strongholds

JOWHAR, Somalia (AFP) - Hardline Islamic militia in Somalia captured the last strongholds of a US-backed warlord alliance and vowed to establish Sharia courts, as Norway was set to host the first meeting of the Somalia Contact Group, a forum aiming to prop up the lawless east African nation.

Continuing their drive northward, columns of heavily-armed militia aboard machine-gun equipped pick-up trucks -- known as "technicals" -- captured the towns of Jowhar, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of capital Mogadishu, and Mahhadei Uen.

The Islamic militia captured the Mogadishu earlier this month.

Islamic courts chief Sheikh Shariff Sheikh Ahmed immediately imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Jowhar and told his fighters to shoot dead anybody found looting.

"We did not come here to earn money or claim power, but to make you safe and secure," he told a crowd of local resident as hundreds more Islamic fighters shouting "Allah Akbar" -- "God is Great" -- continued to enter thetown.

Doctors at local hospitals in both towns said eight people had been killed and around 20 wounded in the battles, with residents saying the toll was lower than previously feared since civilians had had time to take cover.

"We have captured Jowhar and we are now planning to establish a new administration and establish Sharia courts as soon as possible," said Sheikh Hassan Dir, one of the Islamic militia commanders.

In addition, the Islamists arrested two top alliance commanders, Hassan Bhisow and Osman Dheere, who were later questioned.

By the time the curfew took effect, thousands of residents -- many fearing reprisals -- had returned to their homes, leaving the Islamic militia to patrol the township, an AFP correspondent said.

Residents said the Islamists, who now control a large part of Mogadishu, had been well-prepared to seize Jowhar from warlord Mohammed Dheere, a member of the US-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).

Mohammed Dheere was reportedly in Ethiopia when Islamic militants entered Jowhar, host to a
United Nations office and other international aid agencies working in the shattered African nation.

Most international staff were evacuated last week.

The contact group gathering, which brings together representatives of the United States, Norway, Britain, Sweden, Italy, the
European Union and Tanzania, will be held at Norway's UN mission in New York Thursday afternoon, a Norwegian diplomat told AFP.

The United Nations and African Union will send observers to the meeting, which will be chaired by US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

No Somali official was invited to the gathering, which Washington proposed Friday to "promote concerted action and coordination to support the Somalia transitional federal institutions."

On the eve of the meeting, McCormack said: "the United States is ready to work with all parties to seek a peaceful solution and the reestablishment of effective governance in Somalia.

"We are committed to working with our local and international partners to assist in addressing our common concerns regarding terrorism, alleviating the growing humanitarian emergency in Somalia, and helping the people of Somalia regain political and economic stability," he added.

Meanwhile, the Somali transitional parliament -- sitting in the regional Baidoa township -- approved the deployment of peacekeepers, deepening rifts with the courts, whose fighters have vowed to kill foreign troops entering Somalia.

Several warlords had already fled Tuesday night ahead of the fighting. Mohamed Afrah Qanyare and Issa Botan Alin -- who were pushed out of the capital early this month -- and a little-known local chieftain, Abdu Nure Said, left Jowhar and headed further north to Qanyare's hometown in the central Somali region of Galgudud.

Qanyare was widely regarded as the most powerful of the warlords, but his large stockpiles of military hardware failed to deter the Islamic courts, which have been accused of receiving support from foreign fighters.

In northern Mogadishu, warlords Musa Sudi Yalahow and Bashir Raghe Shirar ditched the floundering alliance and told AFP they would support their separate clan-based version of Islamic courts, effectively ending the short-lived tenure of the alliance.

Warlord Abdi Hassan Awale Qeydid quit the ARPCT on Tuesday night, but there was no word from militia chief Omar Muhamoud Finnish.

On Tuesday, east African countries imposed travel bans and froze bank accounts of the warlords and recommended they be prosecuted for crimes against humanity at an international tribunal, but most them dismissed the action.

Since the fighting erupted in February, nearly 360 people have been killed and more than 2,000 others wounded, many of them civilians as the Islamic courts battled to oust the warlords who have ruled Somalia for 15 years.

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 sheltering and disrupt feared plans for new terrorist attacks.

It was not clear Wednesday whether the warlords had accepted ultimate defeat or would regroup and attempt to reclaim their territories.
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