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Monday, January 01, 2007

Somali Islamists flee towards Kenya and to the hills

KISMAYU, Somalia, Jan 1 (Reuters) - Somalia's Islamists fled towards Kenya or melted into the southern hills on Monday after abandoning their last stronghold to advancing government forces backed by Ethiopian troops, tanks and planes.

In just two weeks, Ethiopia's military muscle has enabled a feeble government to break out of its provincial enclave, drive the Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC) from the capital and end six months of Islamist rule across much of the south.

The government said that despite its military successes it recognised that a political settlement was still vital in order to head off the possibility of an Islamist insurgency.

"We need to end the impasse politically," Interior Minister Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed told reporters in the capital. "If we do not reconcile with them then they will start an insurgency like in Iraq."

Several thousand of the Islamist fighters who retreated from Mogadishu on Thursday took a stand 300 km (186 miles) to the south near Kismayu port, but disappeared Sunday night after trading artillery fire with Ethiopian and government troops.

The leaders and fighters SICC, who fled Mogadishu on Thursday after six months rule, headed further south along the Indian Ocean coast towards neighbouring Kenya, residents said.

They have vowed to hit back with guerrilla tactics.

Some Kismayu residents said the Islamists headed into the remote hilly region of Buur Gaabo, just on the Somali side of the border, where it would be very hard to catch them.

Aideed said SICC leaders were in the coastal village of Ras Kamboni.

"It will take three to four months to clear them from there," he said "That would be long. The place is rugged with thick bushes."

In the newly captured but gun-infested capital, the triumphant government gave residents and militia three days from Tuesday to hand in their weapons or be disarmed by force.

It renewed its appeal for African peacekeepers to come "as soon as possible" to help stabilise the Horn of Africa nation, which has been in chaos and without central rule since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.

And it urged Kenya to close its border and arrest any Islamists who made it across. A Kenyan police chief said several suspected fighters from Somalia were arrested on the frontier on Sunday and were being questioned. He gave no more details.

The long and porous border is tough to patrol, with ethnic Somalis populating the Kenyan side and nomads crossing easily.

U.S. warships from its Djibouti-based counterterrorism Joint Task Force were also said to be patrolling the sea off Somalia to stop SICC leaders or foreign militant supporters escaping.


Diplomats said Ethiopia has almost certainly received tacit U.S. support for its intervention. Their forces have provided an unbeatable combination of air power, artillery and tank support which has quickly routed the Islamists.

Residents north of Kismayu said mortar and rocket battles between the two sides stopped just before midnight. "There was a big silence. Then the Islamic Courts just left," one local said.

Ethiopian and government forces marched into the port early on Monday after clearing mines left by Islamists on the road.

Somalia's ambassador to Ethiopia, Abdikarin Farah said Ethiopian forces would stay as long as they were needed, and repeated the call for peacekeepers.

"We do not need a vacuum to be created," he said. "If the African Union and international community want Ethiopian troops to withdraw, they must deploy without delay."

Some Kismayu residents took advantage of the disorder to loot the Islamist arsenal.

"I came to see if I can get anything to sell," said local Mohamed Amin, one of dozens carrying off weapons.

Somalia's defence minister, Col. Abdikadir Adan Shire, also known as Barre Hiraale, said he was overjoyed.

"I am happy to return after a short absence," he told Reuters as he rolled into Kismayu in a military convoy.

While Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Somali government's President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi will be delighted with the Islamists' flight, political analysts say the conflict may be far from over.

The Islamists, who had swollen their ranks with foreign Muslim fighters, may now concentrate on an Iraqi-style insurgency against a government they see as illegitimate and propped up by a hated and Christian-led foreign power.

Born out of sharia courts operating in Mogadishu, the Islamists chased U.S.-backed warlords from the capital in June.

The SICC brought a semblance of order for the first time in nearly 16 years, but some of their hardline moves -- like shutting cinemas and holding public executions -- angered Somalis, traditionally moderate Muslims.

Both Addis Ababa and Washington say the SICC is a dangerous Taliban-like movement linked to al Qaeda, an accusation the movement says was trumped up to justify foreign intervention. (Additional reporting by Bryson Hull and Guled Mohamed in Mogadishu; Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa; Andrew Cawthorne and David Mageria in Nairobi; Noor Ali in Garissa)
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