21 killed as Islamists rid capital of warlords

MOGADISHU (AFP) — Somali Islamic fighters on Sunday declared “absolute” victory over the remaining warlords in the lawless capital Mogadishu after deadly clashes that claimed at least 21 lives, marking the end of the notorious warlords’ rule in the Indian Ocean city.

“We have absolutely won the fighting that started in Mogadishu this morning. We now control the whole city after we seized the last territory from warlord Qeydiid,” said Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the deputy secretary of defence for the Islamic courts.

Fighters allied to the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia ousted their rivals loyal to warlord Abdi Hassan Awale Qeydiid, who alongside warlord Hussein Aidid had refused to surrender and handover their weapons to the Islamists, who routed the other warlords from the capital on June 5.

At least 21 people were killed, including civilians, in deadly artillery duels in southern Mogadishu, while dozens were wounded and taken to the capital’s Medina and Banadir hospitals, doctors, witnessess and fighters said.

Witnesses said warlords’ fighters fled from their positions, which they had held for many years, as Islamic fighters on battlewagons — pickup trucks mounted with machineguns — established base, marking the end of warlords’ rule in the lawless capital.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard as the vanquished militiamen fled for safety led by Qeydiid himself, according to an AFP correspondent. Aidid, also deputy prime minister in the transitional administration, was in the seat of government in Baidoa, about 250 kilometres northwest of the capital.

The two warlords spurned several calls to surrender and give up their weapons, dismissing the Islamists as stooges paid by foreign terrorists to impose Islamic theocracy in the nation of around 10 million people.

They said the toll could be much higher as several wounded civilians had been taken to hospitals and dispensaries with critical injuries. Hundreds of terrified civilians fled battlefields and stray rounds of fire rent the air.

The Islamists, who routed the US-backed warlords from the capital on June 5 and now control large swathes of southern Somalia, vowed to rid the country of warlords and other faction chiefs who have ruled since the government of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.

Apart from Qeydiid and Aidid, other defeated warlords either fled or defected to the Islamic courts.

Aidid was not part of the now-vanquished US-backed Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), but kept his fighters in the lawless capital.

The latest unrest brings the toll to at least 381 dead and more than 2,000 wounded in the fighting, which erupted on February 18 when Washington bankrolled the warlords grouped under the ARPCT to curb the growing influence of the Islamists, who are accused of links with Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda network and harbouring foreign fighters.

The Islamists have flatly rejected the charges while starting to impose strict Sharia law across the overwhelmingly moderate Muslim country in what many see as a direct challenge to Somalia’s largely powerless transitional government.

US officials have repeatedly described their victory as “creeping Talebanisation” as Sharia law has increasingly taken hold, with public executions, banning of bands in wedding parties and lashing of offenders in public and well as outlawing World Cup, Western and Indian films.

In addition, the Islamists have warned that Muslims who fail to perform daily prayers will be killed in accordance with Koranic law.

The requirement to observe the five-times daily ritual under penalty of death was announced last week and appears to confirm the hardline nature of the courts.

Last month, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a hardline cleric designated a terrorist by the United States, was named as the Islamists’ supreme leader, deepening fears that Somalia is becoming a haven for terrorists.

The courts are due to meet senior government officials next week in Sudan but remain deeply at odds with the administration on several key issues, including the planned deployment of international peacekeepers which they maintain would jeopardise efforts to restore stability.

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