MOGADISHU (Reuters) â€” Triumphant Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies marched into Mogadishu on Thursday after Islamist rivals abandoned the war-scarred city they held for six months.
The flight of the Islamists was a dramatic turnaround in the volatile Horn of Africa nation after they took Mogadishu in June and spread across the south imposing Sharia rule.
Terrified of yet more violence in a city that has become a byword for chaos, some Mogadishu residents greeted the arriving government troops, while others hid. “People are cheering as they wave flowers to the troops,” said resident Abdikadar Abdulle, adding scores of government military vehicles had passed the Somalia National University west of the city centre.
Parts of Mogadishu shook with the sound of gunfire and there were outbreaks of looting after leaders of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) fled its base early in the morning. Some fighters ditched their uniforms to avoid reprisals.
“We have been defeated. I have removed my uniform. Most of my comrades have also changed into civilian clothes,” one former SICC fighter told Reuters. “Most of our leaders have fled.” The fall of Mogadishu came about 10 days after the Islamists sought to march on the government base of Baidoa. That prompted Ethiopia to come openly into the war, proving the decisive factor in saving the government and pushing back the Islamists. The SICC had brought a semblance of stability to Mogadishu after chasing US-backed warlords from the city in June.
Islamists and residents said order had collapsed with their departure.
“Mogadishu is now in chaos,” Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told Al Jazeera television.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi vowed to pursue the Islamist leaders. “We will not let Mogadishu burn,” he added.
More than a week of mortar and rocket duels between the Islamists and the Ethiopian-backed government spiralled into open war 10 days ago. With Eritrea accused of backing the Islamists, many had feared the conflict would engulf the Horn of Africa nation. Ethiopia, like the United States, says the Islamists are supported by Al Qaeda. It says it has taken foreign prisoners and killed radicals from abroad, including some with British passports.
The SICC has depicted the conflict with Christian-led Ethiopia, which has one of Africa’s most effective armies, as a holy war against “crusaders”, tapping into decades of rivalry between the two neighbours.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said government forces had secured the main routes into Mogadishu. “We are taking control of the city and I will confirm when we have established complete control,” he said.
He said the Islamists had fled to the southern port city of Kismayu and the administration controlled 95 perÂ cent of the Horn of Africa country.
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi flew to a town near the capital on Thursday afternoon.
The government declared a state of emergency “to control security and stability”.
SICC leader Ahmed said his side’s hasty withdrawal was a tactical move. Many had predicted the Islamists would wage a guerrilla war if dealt a resounding blow in the first round of war.
Islamist defence lines were routed by a joint force of Ethiopian armour and government fighters.
Years of chaos
Ahmed said the Islamists were united and determined to push out Ethiopian forces, but retreated to avoid more bloodshed.
By fleeing, the Islamists appeared to have averted the risk of becoming embroiled in the fierce street fighting that forced the US military from Mogadishu more than a decade ago in a humiliating episode captured in the film “Black Hawk Down”.
Dinari said Yusuf remained in the government’s south-central base Baidoa. ButÂ Gedi landed at Afgoye in an Ethiopian military helicopter, some 30km west of Mogadishu, where he was met by cheering crowds and clan leaders from the city.
“Our forces are controlling the situation,” he said.
The return of the government to the capital would be a massive step in achieving greater legitimacy in the 14th attempt to restore central rule since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.