Warlord militias advance on Mogadishu

From: http://edition.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/06/08/somalia.reut/index.html

Thursday, June 8, 2006 Posted: 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)

MOGADISHU, Somalia (Reuters) -- Warlords driven out of Mogadishu by an Islamist militia are advancing back towards the Somali capital from their last stronghold of Jowhar, residents said on Thursday.

The residents, reached by telephone, told Reuters the Islamists were pulling back towards the town of Balad, which fell on Sunday and is on the road to the capital. They said Jowhar warlords, reinforced by allies defeated in Mogadishu and Balad, had moved into positions south of the town that were previously occupied by the militia loyal to Mogadishu sharia courts.

"The (warlord) coalition has moved forward to Qalimoy, where the Islamic courts militia was yesterday. While the Islamic militia have moved back and are now in Gololey, which is 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Balad," farmer Abdi Warsame said.

"I think they moved back because their leaders are busy meeting in Mogadishu and they want to tighten their defenses there."

The warlords have vowed to win back the capital.

Earlier, Islamic courts chairman Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said his forces would not push into Jowhar unless they were attacked.

Scores of residents had fled Jowhar fearing an Islamist offensive. They had stopped leaving on Thursday.

"The town is much calmer. Residents are happy the Islamic militia have moved back," Warsame said.

He said hundreds took to the streets there to support U.S. President George W. Bush's statement of concern that Somalia should not become an al Qaeda safe haven.

"Local administration leaders vowed to continue fighting what they called 'al-Qaeda in Somalia'," Warsame said.

The Islamic militia won control of Mogadishu on Monday from a self-styled anti-terrorism warlord coalition, widely believed to be backed by Washington, after fierce fighting that had killed 350 people since February.

Awad Ashara, a member of parliament, told Reuters the country's interim government was planning to meet the Islamists.

"The government will in the coming days be sending cabinet members, lawmakers as well as influential traditional elders to Mogadishu. They will try to achieve reconciliation between the Islamic courts and the other groups," he said.

Ashara said the government wanted the Islamists to open Mogadishu's main seaport and airport, closed since 1994.

"The government urged the Islamic courts to take immediate necessary measures of establishing law and order in Mogadishu until the government comes and to work out voluntary disarmament," he said

The interim government, too weak to enter Mogadishu from its base in the provincial city of Baidoa, has welcomed the defeat of warlords widely believed to have undermined it. The Islamist victory dislodged warlords from Mogadishu for the first time since they ousted military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, but clan fighters vowed to reclaim lost ground.

Ali Nur, a warlord fighter, said his Sa'ad clan was boosting defenses in its areas of Mogadishu.

"They have agreed to fight the Islamic courts. We will not attack them now, but if they attack us, we will repel them and repossess our territories," he said.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed on Thursday to Somalia's warlords to now "come together and find a way of stabilizing and rebuilding their country".

Washington said on Wednesday it might be open to dealing with the Islamic militia, possibly signaling a new approach to Somalia.

It has long viewed the failed state as a potential shelter for international terrorists. But its reported covert funding of the defeated warlords has drawn domestic criticism.

Some analysts believe the defeat of the warlords, who ran their fiefdoms in Mogadishu with private armies for 15 years and are despised by much of the population, could create an opening for peace in the anarchic country.

Washington, which has shied away from direct involvement in Somalia since a humiliating 1994 exit of U.S. and U.N. troops, refused to discuss reports it funneled $100,000 a month to warlords, but says it will support anyone fighting terrorism.