Somalia attacks militants' stronghold


Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 9:29 p.m.

KISMAYO, Somalia - Fighting erupted Sunday on the outskirts of a militant Islamic movement's last remaining stronghold, where Somalia's prime minister said three al-Qaeda suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies were hiding.

Somali troops, supported by Ethiopian tanks and MiG fighter jets, attacked front-line forces of the Islamic group in southern Somalia. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said they would ''capture or kill'' the terror suspects.

Thousands of residents fled the fertile agricultural area before the battle, carrying blankets, food and water as they headed toward the Kenyan border, 100 miles to the south.

Gedi said Islamic militants in Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city, were sheltering alleged bombers Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani. The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed more than 250 people.

The latest fighting broke out in Helashid, 11 miles northwest of Jilib, the gateway to Kismayo, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters were preparing for a bloody showdown.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard in Kismayo itself, and Ethiopian MiG fighters were flying over the city. Islamic fighter Rabi Ahmed told The Associated Press that about 50 militia in the city were refusing to go to the front and fight.

The skirmishes were taking place in thick mango forests, which provided cover for the Islamic militia from tanks and aircraft, villager Mohamed Deq told the AP.

Both sides are ''firing mortars and artillery shells,'' he said. ''It is heavy, and we can hear a lot of machine gunfire hitting the buildings.''

Howo Nor said she was fleeing with her three children. ''I don't know where to go. We are terrified because we can hear the fighting,'' she said.

Islamic leaders vowed to make a stand against Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in Africa, or to begin an Iraq-style guerrilla war.

''Even if we are defeated we will start an insurgency,'' said Sheik Ahmed Mohamed Islan.

the head of the Islamic movement in the Kismayo region. ''We will kill every Somali that supports the government and Ethiopians.''

Jilib resident Mohamed Suldan Ali said the Islamic forces had littered the approach to the town with remote-controlled land mines. Another resident said the fighters had destroyed three bridges on routes leading to the town.

Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian allies have long accused Islamic militias of harboring al-Qaida, and the U.S. government has said the 1998 bombers have become leaders in the Islamic movement in Africa.

''We would like to capture or kill these guys at any cost,'' Prime Minister Gedi told the AP. ''They are the root of the problem.''

The Islamic group denies having links to al-Qaida.

In the past 10 days, Islamic fighters have been forced from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of attacks led by Ethiopia.

Gedi said he spoke Sunday to the U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, about sealing the Kenyan border with Somalia to prevent the three terror suspects from escaping.

''If we capture them alive we will hand them over to the United States,'' Gedi said. ''We know they are in Kismayo.''

The U.S. government has a counterterrorism task force based in neighboring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet also has a maritime task force patrolling international waters off the Somali coast, which helps prevent terrorists from launching attacks or transporting personnel, weapons or other material, said fleet spokesman Commander Kevin Aandahl.

The military advance marked 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 the capital and much of southern Somalia.

The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, wants to transform Somalia into a strict Islamic state.

Islamic officials said they still had fighters in the capital and were ready for warfare. Late Saturday, an unexplained blast in the capital left one woman dead and two others wounded and stirred fears of a guerrilla war.

Some Mogadishu residents also feared the return of warlords who were the city's rulers, judges, jailers and executioners before the Islamic Courts drove them out.

Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, one of those warlords, has already returned - and he warned the Somali government's control over Mogadishu was an illusion.

''If Ethiopian forces pull out tomorrow, (the Islamists) will come back the following day. I guarantee you,'' said Afrah, who said he had 1,500 militiamen under his control.

He said he was convinced the Islamists were still hiding in Mogadishu and would strike with ''urban guerrilla warfare - land mines, explosives. People will live in terror and fear.''

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