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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Islamists seize strategic town of Jowhar

MOGADISHU, June 14 (Reuters) - Somali Islamist militias seized the strategic town of Jowhar on Wednesday, the last major redoubt of warlords whom they unseated from the anarchic capital last week.

"At last we are in the town," Sheikh Hassan, a local elder loyal to the Islamic courts, told Reuters.

The Islamist capture of Jowhar gives them control of most of southern Somalia and raises the question of whether they will help the weak interim government or impose Islamic rule.

Four people were killed and between 10 and 18 were wounded, Islamist militia sources in Nairobi said.

The Islamist militias recently ousted warlords in a self-styled anti-terrorism coalition -- widely believed to be backed by the United States -- from Mogadishu in battles that have killed more than 350 people since February.

Wednesday's assault appeared to be an attempt to deliver a final blow to the much-weakened warlords, whose fortunes as feudal rulers of patches of Somalia including Mogadishu for the past 15 years have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

Residents said militia fighters linked to sharia courts had seized Jowhar airport to the west of the town, about 90 km (55 miles) from Mogadishu.

They also entered from the south, sending terrified residents fleeing as they battered the town with heavy artillery and machine guns.

Suffering the same problem they faced in Mogadishu, the warlords' fighters -- in this case hired guns linked to the local administration and remaining warlords including Mohamed Dheere -- dropped their weapons and fled.

"Islamic militias have entered the town and the warlord militias have defected," Mohamed Abdi, a Jowhar resident, told Reuters."After they seized Jowhar airport, they seized the town."


Earlier, the warlords reiterated they were defending Somalia from fighters with an Islamist agenda. They have accused the Islamists of harbouring al Qaeda suspects in Somalia's lawless vacuum, a charge the Islamists deny.

"Those who are attacking us are Islamic fundamentalist militias who are trying to install an Islamic state," Hassan Dhicisow, a Jowhar militia commander said.

The warlords had ruled Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous cities, since their 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre ushered in an era of anarchy.

Hours before fighting began in Jowhar, four warlords who had gone there from Mogadishu fled the town, and a key ally said he was abandoning their cause.

"I have decided to give up my membership in the anti-terror alliance after pressure from my clan," former Somalia police chief Colonel Abdi Hassan Awale said.

Abdulahi Dahir, one of the administrators of Jowhar, told Reuters former ministers Bootan Isse Alim and Mohamed Qanyare had taken off from their base there, accompanied by two others.

The warlords are increasingly isolated, analysts say, especially after east African nations imposed sanctions including a travel ban and asset freeze at talks in Nairobi.

However a leader of the militia fighters dislodged from Baidoa -- where Somalia's interim government had set up its base -- said they were regrouping to attack the town, which lies 240 km (150 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

President Abdullahi Yusuf's government, the 14th attempt to restore central rule in Somalia since 1991, had set up its own militia in Baidoa to provide security.
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