ISLAMIC militias with links to al-Qaeda seized Mogadishu, the Somali capital, yesterday after months of clashes with warlords who have kept the city in anarchy for 15 years.
The UN has evacuated its staff from the strategic town of Jowhar as the militias, whose ideology is similar to the Taleban, poured out of the capital in pursuit of fighters loyal to military strongmen. The militias now control a 65-mile radius around the capital.
Analysts say that the growing influence of Sharia courts, set up by the Islamic militias, further undermines a fractured new government, sitting 130 miles away in Baidoa.
In a statement read over local radio stations Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, chairman of the city's Joint Islamic Courts, urged residents to accept the new leadership. “The Joint Islamic Courts are not interested in a continuation of hostilities and will fully implement peace and security after the change has been made by the victory of the people with the support of Allah,” he said.
Mogadishu's network of Sharia courts, administering law and order as well as schools and clinics, has won widespread support in a country that has lacked an effective government since 1991, when warlords forced President Mohamed Siad Barre to flee.
The city has suffered renewed violence since February when 11 warlords and businessmen combined their militias to tackle fighters linked with the courts, who want to create an Islamic state. The US is widely believed to be backing the warlords as part of its War on Terror, although it has carried out no direct action in Somalia since the death of 18 servicemen in 1993, a battle depicted in the film Black Hawk Down.
American officials refused to confirm or deny the allegations, saying only that they are working with groups committed to tackling terrorism. However, the US fears that the anarchic Horn of Africa country could become a haven for al-Qaeda. The State Department's most recent Somalia report says that Mogadishu is home to terrorists responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Denis Sassou Nguesso, the African Union chief and Congo Republic President, yesterday met President Bush in Washington and asked the US to find ways to end the crisis in Somalia, but emphasised that Washington must not aid warlords.
According to a UN monitoring group report, foreign jihadis have been fighting with Somali militias. It also reported that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, wanted by America in connection with terrorism, has been buying machineguns at Mogadishu's arms bazaar.
The Sharia courts leaders claimed victory yesterday in Mogadishu after blockading two warlords into their fortified homes, and forcing two others to flee north to Jowhar. This came after a weekend of battles to the north of the city, where Islamic militias captured the town of Balad, cutting a vital supply line to the warlords.
While some residents welcomed the prospect of an end to fighting that has killed more than 350 people this year, others feared the motives of the Islamic militias. “The Somali people are afraid of Islamists' new wave of hatred and renewed fighting. The Islamic clerics want to be like the Taleban regime in Afghanistan,” Abdulqaadir Bashir, a computer engineer, said.
It leaves the country's fledgeling transitional government, which returned to Somalia in February after being formed in neighbouring Kenya, in a precarious position. Abdirahman Dinari, its spokesman, urged the Islamic militias yesterday to enter talks with ministers.