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Friday, September 22, 2006

Islamists advance on Somali port - officials

KISMAYO, Somalia, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Somali Islamist militia were advancing on the strategic port of Kismayo on Friday with the aim of seizing it to expand their control of the Horn of Africa nation's south, officials said.

"It is clear that ICU (Islamic Courts Union) is attacking us. We will defend ourselves and face them," said a colonel from the local Juba Valley Alliance authority, who declined to be named.

Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said he had information more than 40 Islamist vehicles were en route to Kismayo. "I think they're surrounding Kismayo. We're just waiting for the start of the fighting," he said.

Dinari added that any attack on Kismayo, Somalia's third largest city near the border with Kenya, would be a breach of a ceasefire agreement reached between the government and Islamists during recent talks in Khartoum.

Islamist leaders in Mogadishu could not be immediately reached for comment. The Islamists took Mogadishu and a swathe of south Somalia earlier this year in a challenge to the government's aspiration of restoring central rule for the first time since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.

Rumours of an impending flare-up in Kismayo have sent thousands of refugees fleeing to Kenya in recent days, with between 300 to 600 arriving daily in the Dadaab camps just over the border, according to the United Nations.

The independent Juba Valley Alliance, which controls the Kismayo area, is led by new Defence Minister Col. Abdikadir Adan Shire, a warlord also known as Barre Hiraale.

The Islamists have in the last month been urging him to hand over the town, since many of the militias protecting it have clan alignments close to the Islamists.
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