MOGADISHU (Reuters) â€” Ethiopian troops will stay in Somalia for several weeks to help the victorious government pacify the Horn of Africa nation after a two-week war to oust Islamists, both countries said on Tuesday.
Tightening the net on defeated Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) fighters fleeing south, neighbouring Kenya said it had sealed its porous northeastern border and hosted Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf for security talks.
A triumphant Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi â€” whose intervention turned the war against the Islamists â€” said his forces would only remain “for a few weeks” while the interim government pacifies a nation in chaos since 1991.
His planes, tanks and troops helped the Somali government drive out the Islamists from Mogadishu last week. The administration broke out of its provincial outpost Baidoa to end six months of Islamist rule across much of the south.
“It is up to the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force in Somalia without delay to avoid a vacuum and the resurgence of extremists and terrorists,” Meles said.
In Mogadishu â€” where the interim government set up gun collection points at the start of a drive to disarm one of the world’s most dangerous cities â€” Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohammad Gedi said Ethiopian troops may in fact stay for months. “The Ethiopians will leave when they clear terrorists and pacify Somalia. It will be… weeks and months, not more.” The Somali government is also calling for an African peacekeeping mission â€” endorsed by the United Nations before the war â€” to be deployed as soon as possible.
Uganda has provisionally offered a battalion but said on Tuesday it was unwilling to deploy unless its mission and exit strategy were clearly defined. Nigeria may also help. Despite the Islamists’ surprisingly quick flight, analysts and diplomats say the conflict may be far from over.
The Islamists, joined by some foreign fighters, may launch an Iraqi-style insurgency against a government they see as propped up by a hated and Christian-led foreign power.
Gedi said Eritrean, Ethiopian rebel and Arab fighters had been taken prisoner during the recent fighting in “a clear sign foreign fighters are involved”. The government has offered an amnesty to Somali fighters â€” some of whom the government says have been in touch â€” but insists captured foreigners will face the courts.
â€˜No sacred cowsâ€™
The government has told Mogadishu residents to hand over their weapons by Thursday or be forcibly disarmed. “There will be no sacred cows,” Information Minister Ali Jama Jangali said.
Gedi said many had already flocked to the collection points, but at one seen by Reuters, not a single gun had been handed in.
Stabilising the city is the first priority of the interim government whose legitimacy hinges on installing itself in the capital and restoring central rule for the first time since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohammad Siad Barre.
The task is complicated by the return of warlords hoping to restore fiefdoms they ran before the SICC, which pacified Mogadishu by enforcing Sharia law, chased them out.
Despite a UN arms embargo, a proliferation of weapons has made the war-scarred capital on the Indian Ocean one of the most gun-infested cities in the world.
SICC spokesman Abdirahim Ali Mudey, speaking from a hideout, poured scorn on the government’s disarmament drive, saying it would be unable to unite Somalia’s clan-based society.
“Some clans will fight back because trust does not yet exist,” Mudey said by telephone, without revealing his location.
After fleeing their last stronghold in the southern port of Kismayu on Monday in the face of an Ethiopian bombardment, Islamist fighters and leaders have moved further south.
“Anyone who hands in his weapon will be forgiven,” Somalia’s Defence Minister, Colonel Abdikadir Adan Shire, also known as Barre Hiraale, told a huge victory rally in Kismayu on Tuesday.
South of Kismayu, where the Islamists are on the run, Nairobi said it was trying to stop hundreds crossing through.
“The border with Somalia has been closed and some have been prevented from entering into our side. In fact about 100 people have been sent back,” Ananiah Mwaboza, Kenya’s assistant minister for immigration, told Reuters.
Residents say some Islamist fighters have regrouped in the hilly Buur Gaabo region, just on the Somali side of the border.
US warships were patrolling off Somalia to stop SICC leaders or foreign supporters escaping, diplomats said.