(photo credit: AP)
Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian troops are closing in on the last remaining stronghold of a militant Islamic movement. Somalia's prime minister called for dialogue, but warned that any resistance would be met with force.
The military advance on Kismayo marks the latest move in a stunning turnaround for Somalia's government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town, its base of Baidoa, while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled much of southern Somalia.
But in the last 10 days, the Islamic group has been forced from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of attacks led by Ethiopia, the region's greatest military power. In the capital, 300 people were holding signs and chanting: "We support the government," while protesters in other neighborhoods denounced it.
Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said the next stop was Kismayo.
"We are going to advance from different directions to try and encircle the city and force the Islamic group to retreat and so minimize the loss of civilians," he told The Associated Press.
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi called for talks - but also said the government was ready to fight.
"We are calling on the Somali representatives of the Islamic courts for dialogue and to join us," Gedi said on the outskirts of the capital, where he was meeting with Mogadishu clan elders under an acacia tree to smooth the takeover of the city. But he added: "If the remnants of the terrorists try to attack, yes of course bloodshed will take place."
The government and Ethiopian troops, riding in 16 Ethiopian tanks, armored vehicles and artillery, were 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the front line, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters were wedged between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean. A trickle of Somalis began leaving Kismayo, the Islamic stronghold, Saturday in anticipation of an attack.
The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, has pledged to continue its fight, despite military losses.
"I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the group's leader, told residents in Kismayo.
"We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy," he added. The group wants to transform Somalia into a strict Islamic state.
The interim Somali government and its Ethiopian allies, who accuse the Islamic group of harboring al-Qaida terrorists, hope to close the net before the Islamists can slip away amid reports that some foreign fighters are trying to flee through neighboring Kenya or by boat.
Ethiopia is a close ally of the United States, which is keen to capture suspected al-Qaida terrorists in the Horn of Africa.
The US government - which says four suspects in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in the Islamic movement in Africa - has a counterterrorism task force based in neighboring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders.
The US Navy's Fifth Fleet also has a maritime task force patrolling international waters off the Somali coast. Gedi said his government was in daily contact with the US.
The government, which has been confined to Baidoa, is moving ahead with plans to move to the Somali capital, said President Abdullahi Yusuf, who also was in Afgoye on Saturday. He also pledged to bring more troops to help secure the region.
Although his UN-backed government was established in 2004, it has never had control over Mogadishu or many other parts of the lawless country until Ethiopia stepped in. His government has been confined to Baidoa, a dusty agricultural town 250 kilometers (150 miles) away.
Gedi also said he expects to disarm militias in the city within three weeks.
Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government's reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of Africa's largest armies. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, a charter twin-engine plane carrying aid to Somalia for the International Committee of the Red Cross crashed Saturday shortly after takeoff from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The three crew members suffered minor injuries, said Pascal Hundt, the head of the ICRC Somali delegation.