MOGADISHU (Reuters) â€” Somali gunmen attacked an oil tanker truck near Mogadishu on Thursday, wounding three people and raising fears of a return to the clan violence that had largely stopped during six months of Islamist rule.
The Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC), which had imposed Sharia Law across much of the south, abandoned the capital last week to government troops backed by Ethiopian forces.
Within hours of the Islamists’ departure, militiamen loyal to warlords ousted in June reappeared at checkpoints in the city where they used to rob, rape and murder civilians.
“The militias fired three RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades].
One of them hit us,” the truck driver, who gave his name as Tusbah, told Reuters at the scene, where the charred wreckage of his vehicle lay strewn across a sandy road.
“They were bandits who wanted money.” Dozens of passengers riding on top of the truck fled as the gunmen fired automatic rifles before launching grenades.
The rapid return of warlords showed how easily Mogadishu could slide back into anarchy.
The attack in Galgalato, 25km north of the city centre, came on the last day of a three-day government ultimatum for Mogadishu residents and militia to turn in their guns.
Few have been turned in.
“I have an AK-47 [Kalashnikov rifle] and a pistol in my house. I will not surrender them because I do not see any trustworthy person to give them to,” said one resident, who declined to be named.
“People have started burying their weapons. Others have transported their heavy weapons outside Mogadishu.” Deputy Defence Minister Salad Ali Jelle said forcible disarmament would begin at the weekend.
“We will start sweeping and collecting the weapons from Saturday,” he said. But a government source said this was yet to be finalised.
Government troops backed by Ethiopian armour and aircraft were hunting Islamist fighters who fled their last stronghold in the southern port of Kismayu on Monday, vowing to fight on.
They have melted into the hills between Kismayu and Kenya and one resident said they had headed for the southern Badamadow forest.
“Our troops went towards the Kenyan border to get those terrorists,” said Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail, a senior government security official in Kismayu.
A government source said five foreigners, including three Sudanese teachers and an official at the Sudanese consulate in Mogadishu, had been arrested by government troops at Mogadishu airport on suspicion of having helped the Islamists.
The United States has deployed warships off the Somali coast to hunt fleeing Islamists and Nairobi has declared the land frontier closed, leaving those fleeing fighting unable to seek refuge in Kenya’s northeastern Dadaab camps.
“Potentially up to 7,000 people are sitting in Doble [a Somali border town],” said Geoff Wordley of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Dadaab. “They have no assistance or food or water. This could develop into a major crisis.” Kenyan Foreign Minister Raphael Tuju denied genuine refugees had been sent back, and said suspected fighters holding British, Canadian, Eritrean and Danish passports had been intercepted.
“It is apparent that some of these ‘asylum seekers’ are combatants on the run,” he said. Tuju called on UNHCR to repatriate hundreds to other countries hosting Somali refugees.
The Somali government wants a foreign peacekeeping force â€” approved by the United Nations before the war â€” to be deployed.
Uganda has provisionally offered a battalion, and its president, Yoweri Museveni, was meeting his Ethiopian counterpart Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa on Thursday.
US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer was also in Addis Ababa and was due to co-host a meeting in Nairobi on Friday to discuss Somalia.