Somali troops, aided by Ethiopia, displace Islamic rebels in capital
By MAHAD AHMED ELMI and JONATHAN S. LAY
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Government troops and allied forces from neighboring Ethiopia swept into Mogadishu on Thursday without firing a shot after Islamic militants abandoned Somalia's capital.
Once considered unbeatable, the Council of Islamic Courts was left holding only a small pocket of territory around the southern port city of Kismayo. Only days earlier, the militants had controlled much of Somalia.
But the routing of the loose alliance of Islamic militants after only a week of fighting did not mean an end to the years of war and suffering that have racked the impoverished country of 9 million in the Horn of Africa.
There were grave fears that hard-core Somali Islamists, bolstered by foreign radicals, would fight a guerrilla insurgency against Somalia's Western-backed interim federal government and its protectors from Ethiopia, a country with a population divided between Christians and Muslims.
Moreover, even as Somali government and Ethiopian troops moved into Mogadishu, gunmen from rival clans that had fought over the city for years before the Islamists drove them out began reappearing in the streets.
The Council of Islamic Courts overran much of Somalia after seizing Mogadishu in July from clan militias that the United States had funded secretly. Many Somalis welcomed the militants because they ended years of lawlessness, even though they employed harsh Islamic punishments.
Ethiopia, which has one of Africa's strongest militaries, intervened last week at the request of the transitional federal government, a U.N.-recognized alliance of clan and political strongmen that the Islamists had penned up in the town of Baidoa.
The Bush administration, which has accused the Council of Islamic Courts of being in league with al-Qaida, gave tacit approval to Ethiopia's intervention.
Somali troops backed by Ethiopian ground forces and fighter jets advanced rapidly out of Baidoa, overrunning many areas without fights. Lightly armed Council of Islamic Courts fighters withdrew in headlong flight, although their leaders called it a tactical retreat.
Government and Ethiopian forces entered Mogadishu unopposed Thursday afternoon from the north, while a second column moving from the south halted short of the city's boundaries.
Ethiopia had said its troops wouldn't move into Mogadishu. It apparently changed its mind after Council of Islamic Courts leaders and fighters fled the city southward toward Kismayo.
In the power vacuum, shots echoed around the city, and gunmen robbed shops and held up civilians. Looters stripped offices that militants had abandoned. At least three civilians were reported killed and more than 10 injured.
"We will not let Mogadishu burn," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in Addis Ababa.
Some residents welcomed the government and Ethiopian forces as they moved through the blighted streets to the Hotel Ramadan, which the Islamists had used as their headquarters.
The Ethiopian prime minister said he hoped the Islamists could be crushed and the conflict concluded "in days, if not in a few weeks."
Most Somalis regard Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the last 45 years and has refused to relinquish its ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region, as their deadliest foe.