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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Somali Islamic militia push north for more gains

NAIROBI, June 6 (Reuters) - Somali Islamic militia pushed north to take more strategic territory on Tuesday after winning a bloody three-month battle for control of Mogadishu from warlords widely believed to be backed by Washington.

Fighters loyal to Somalia's sharia courts seized the lawless capital from a self-styled anti-terrorism coalition of warlords on Monday after several bouts of fierce fighting that had killed some 350 people, mostly civilians, since February.

Hundreds more people were wounded in close-quarter street battles using mortars and anti-aircraft artillery.

Somalia's interim prime minister, Mohamed Ali Gedi, congratulated the Islamic side on their victory against the warlords.

It was the first time they had been dislodged from Mogadishu since ousting former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and many of them were reported to be on the run.

The Islamic fighters advanced on Tuesday towards the warlord stronghold of Jowhar, about 90 km (56 miles) north of Mogadishu.

"Our forces are in the village of Qalimoy, 20 km south of Jowhar. We are just waiting for orders from our leaders to capture it," said militia leader Siyad Mohamed who is allied to the Islamic courts.

He spoke to Reuters by phone from Balad, a town on the road to Jowhar which fell on Sunday.

"The courts want to capture Jowhar. Fighting can start anytime there," said Ali Nur, a warlord coalition militiaman.

But he said powerful elders had told the Islamic side not to attack the town and the warlord fighters were regrouping.

"Clan elders have warned the courts not to attack Jowhar, threatening to mass militia against them if they proceed with their plan," Nur said.


He said the Islamic side told the warlord coalition to hand over weapons but its fighters were preparing an assault to regain lost Mogadishu strongholds, notably the Kilometre Four area.

"We are preparing ourselves to repossess our territory. ... We have close to 100 technicals," he said referring to pick-up trucks mounted with heavy guns.

Gedi praised the Islamic side on pushing out the warlords.

"It was an excellent step forward. ... It was appropriate to address them and then to destroy their forces in order to restore stability in the capital ... because they were not ready for a government, they were not ready for peace," he told Radio France Internationale.

"They were hurting reconciliation, stabilisation and pacification of Somalia. ... All those forces who joined their efforts together were the pillars of the victory and the government has congratulated them," he said.

The interim government, based in the southern town of Baidoa, is too weak to enter Mogadishu and many Somalis believe the warlords formed their alliance to undermine it.

Some of the warlords were cabinet ministers who were sacked this week for their role in the fighting.

The Islamic victory prompted concern in Washington which fears Somalia could become a haven for terrorists akin to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Some analysts view the violence as a proxy war between the United States and Islamic militants.

But many Somalis moved to the Islamic side because of perceived U.S. support for the warlords, residents say.

Washington has refused to discuss persistent reports it is covertly funnelling $100,000 a month or more to the warlords but has said it will work with anyone combating terrorism.
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