Somalia's PM says major fighting likely over

Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi tells parliament his troops were not peacekeepers and it would be too costly to keep them in Somalia for much longer.

somalia 88 (photo credit: )
somalia 88
(photo credit: )
Somalia's prime minister said Tuesday that rival Islamic fighters have been scattered and he does not expect any more major fighting. His key Ethiopian backer said he would withdraw his troops within weeks. Government forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, were pursuing the remnants of an Islamic militia that until two weeks ago controlled most of southern Somalia and threatened to drive out the internationally backed government. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said some of the militiamen offered to surrender Tuesday. "We asked our troops to collect them and bring them back home," he said, refusing to provide any details about how many fighters were involved or where they were. The rest of the "Islamists are scattered in the bush," he said. "Maybe small fights can take place, but we are trying to destroy them." In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told his parliament his troops were not peacekeepers and it would be too costly to keep them in Somalia for much longer, calling on the international community to act quickly to send in peacekeepers to avoid a vacuum. Withdrawing will not mean abandoning "the Somali government and its people's ongoing effort to stabilize peace in the country," Zenawi said. "We will stay in Somalia for a few weeks, maybe for two weeks." Diplomats from the region were working to arrange the speedy deployment of African peacekeepers to help the interim government establish its authority in the country, which has known only anarchy for 15 years. A three-day period also began Tuesday for Somalis to voluntarily surrender their arms to government-designated points. Ethiopian troops reported that at one such point in the capital, Mogadishu, no one had handed in any weapons in the morning. As the last remaining stronghold of the Islamic group - the port of Kismayo - was overrun by government troops backed by Ethiopian tanks and MiG fighter jets, attention turned to suspected al-Qaida fighters believed to be sheltered by the hard-line group, including three suspects wanted by the United States in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian allies have long accused Islamic militias of harboring al-Qaida, and foreign Islamic radicals - including Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens - are believed to have come to Somalia to fight on behalf of the Islamic movement in recent months. In addition, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri have issued statement making clear they see Somalia as a battleground in their global war on the West. Islamic movement leaders deny having any links to al-Qaida. Sea routes from southern Somalia were being patrolled by the U.S. Navy. Neighboring Kenya, which supports the Somali government, deployed troops, armored vehicles and trucks with light weapons along its 675-kilometer (400-mile) border with Somalia following reports that Somali Islamists fleeing fighting were on the Kenyan frontier, officials said Tuesday. "Kenya cannot be a haven for people who are not wanted by their lawful government," Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua had said in a statement on Monday. Anthony Kibuchi, the Kenyan provincial police commander on the border, said Monday that 10 foreigners were arrested Saturday when they tried to cross into Kenya. Kibuchi refused to say whether the 10 were suspected of fighting alongside Somalia's Islamic movement or provide other details. The intervention of Ethiopia saw a military advance that was a stunning turnaround for Somalia's government. Just weeks ago the government could barely control one town - its base of Baidoa - while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia. The Islamic movement's casualties run into the thousands, Ethiopia said. Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire, speaking in Kismayo Tuesday, said young men who fought with the Islamic militants are "pardoned" and could join Somalia's national army. "You have heard a lot of times that the transitional government is weak," Shire told thousands of Kismayo residents gathered at Freedom Park in the town's center. "But I will confirm you that the national army are in control of all regions in the country - east, center and south." Gedi, the prime minister, said that the airport and the seaport in Mogadishu would reopen Wednesday to humanitarian agencies and that private operators could request clearance from the government to use them as well. Abdirahman Mudey, a spokesman of the Council of Islamic Courts, insisted Monday that any power the government wielded was thanks to its Ethiopian backers. He predicted a return of the chaotic and violent warlord era that Mogadishu knew before his Islamic movement's brief rule. "Somalia is under the occupation of the Ethiopians," Mudey told The Associated Press by phone, declining to give his whereabouts. Diplomats want the international peacekeeping force to replace the muscle of Ethiopia, a country with a large Christian population that has twice fought wars with mostly Muslim Somalia, the last in 1977. Somalia claims territory in Ethiopia. Uganda said it has 1,000 peacekeepers ready to deploy in a few days. Nigeria has also promised troops, Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said. Outside Villa Baidoa, one of the points in Mogadishu where people have been asked to deposit arms, Muhdin Sharif, 25, a student, said he will never give up his weapons until the Ethiopians leave Somalia. He said that if Somalia has a government he can rely on, he would happily give up his weapons.