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Monday, January 08, 2007

Islamic jungle hideout near capture

KISMAYO, Somalia - A jungle hideout used by Islamic militants that is believed to be an al-Qaida base was on the verge of falling to Ethiopian and Somali troops, the defense minister said Monday.

While a lawmaker had earlier told The Associated Press that the base was captured, Somalia's Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire said troops had yet to enter it and that limited skirmishes were still ongoing, though troops were poised to take the base.

Ethiopian soldiers, tanks and warplanes were involved in the two-day attack, a government military commander told the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Shire said there had been heavy fighting with high numbers of casualties.

"There are a lot of casualties from both sides," he said, declining to give details.

Residents in the coastal seaport of Kismayo, some 90 miles northeast of Ras Kamboni, said they saw wounded Ethiopian soldiers being loaded onto military helicopters for evacuation.

"I have seen about 50 injured Ethiopian troops being loaded onto a military chopper," said Farhiya Yusuf. She said 12 Ethiopian helicopters were stationed at the Kismayo airport.

Somali officials said the Islamic movement's main force is bottled up at Ras Kamboni, the southernmost tip of the country, cut off from escape at sea by patrolling U.S. warships and across the Kenyan border by the Kenyan military.

In Mogadishu, Somalia's president made his first visit to the capital since taking office in 2004. During the unannounced visit, President Abdullahi Yusuf was expected to meet with traditional Somali elders and stay at the former presidential palace that has been occupied by warlords for 15 years, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.

U.S. officials warned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that extremists with ties to al-Qaida operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and that al-Qaida members are believed to have visited it.

Three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Islamic movement. The Islamists deny having any links to al-Qaida.

Somalia's government had struggled to survive since forming with backing from the
United Nations two years ago, and was under attack by the Islamic militia when Ethiopia's military intervened on Dec. 24 and turned the tide.

But many in predominantly Muslim Somalia resent the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The countries fought two brutal wars, the last in 1977.

On Sunday, gunmen attacked Ethiopian troops, witnesses said, sparking a firefight in the second straight day of violence in the capital, Mogadishu.
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