Somalis Protest Vote on Peacekeepers

About 10,000 opponents of an international peacekeeping mission demonstrated Friday in the Somali capital, which is controlled by an Islamic militia accused by the United States of harboring wanted Al Qaeda members.

It was the second public protest in as many days against the Somali transitional parliament's Wednesday vote supporting the deployment of Ugandan and Sudanese peacekeepers to help the government establish stability and authority.

The protesters chanted, "We can form a government on our own!" and "No Ethiopia! No Ethiopian government!"

All the Islamic leaders from the Abgal clan attended the rally in central Mogadishu, where protesters also chanted, "America, open your eyes and ears!" and "Allahu akbar! — or "God is great!"

About a third of the crowd was women, dressed in veils that covered their faces. The women had their own section, standing separately from the men.

Late Thursday, residents said unidentified gunmen shot a militiaman loyal to President Abdullahi Yusuf and wounded another when they drove through a checkpoint in Baidoa, which is the only major town Yusuf's government controls in southern Somalia.

In the past two weeks, Islamists have been consolidating their hold on the region, chasing U.S.-backed secular warlords from their former strongholds.

It is unclear why the militiamen forced their way through the checkpoint. The dead militiaman was a member of a nascent police force that Yusuf has been trying to form, with limited success, because his government has little control outside Baidoa, 155 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu.

Residents in another southern town, Jowhar, said hundreds of Islamic militiamen drove out late Thursday in 35 pickups mounted with machine guns, but it was not known where they were going.

The Islamic militants, formally known as the Islamic Courts Union, captured Jowhar, 56 miles northeast of Mogadishu, on Wednesday. It was the last strategic town held by the warlords, and the Islamic fighters imposed an 8 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew, saying it would continue until they had stabilized the town.

The transitional government, whose military consists of little more than the president's personal militia, has watched from the sidelines as the Islamic forces overcame a coalition of secular warlords to take control of southern Somalia. The Islamic forces took Mogadishu June 6.

On Thursday, three more members of the warlord-led Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism said they had resigned. One of them, Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, told HornAfrik that he and the Islamic militia shared a common enemy because both of them opposed proposals for peacekeepers in Somalia. He also apologized for any mistakes he may have made as a leader of the alliance.

Thursday's resignations brings to seven the number of people who have left the alliance, which now has only four members.

The Islamic group's control over southern Somalia is a feat unmatched since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The country has had no effective central government since then.

The Islamic group, accused by the United States of harboring Al Qaeda, portrays itself as free of links to Somalia's past turmoil and capable of bringing order and unity. Yet the future of a country accustomed to moderate Islam would be uncertain under hard-line Islamic rulers.

Somalia's south has seen the worst violence in the country over the past 15 years. The northern and central regions have experienced only sporadic violence.

Northeastern Somalia is run by an autonomous government allied to the president, and central Somalia, where some warlords have fled, is controlled by several groups.

U.S. officials have acknowledged backing the warlords against the Islamic group. In response to the Islamic militia's growing power, the Unites States convened a meeting on Somalia in New York on Thursday.

The New York meeting concluded with the U.S.-organized group of nations lending its support to the country's weak interim government and demanding free access so aid groups can help Somalia's impoverished people.

The first meeting of the International Somalia Contact Group was one of the few major international initiatives toward the nation in the years since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew in 1995.