MOGADISHU, Somalia – Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian troops closed in Saturday on the last remaining stronghold of a militant Islamic movement in southern Somalia, as the prime minister called for talks to avoid further bloodshed.
Some 3,000 Muslim militiamen have taken a stand in the port city of Kismayo, wedged between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean, and the U.S. government believes they may include four suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Islamic movement's leader, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, pledged to continue its fight despite losing capital and other key towns in recent days. "I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," he told residents in Kismayo.
The military advance on Kismayo marks the latest move in a stunning turnaround for Somalia's government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town, its base of Baidoa in the west. Since Ethiopia's dramatic entry into the war last week, however, government troops have retaken the capital, Mogadishu, and pushed the Islamists from much of the territory they held for six months.
The Somali and Ethiopian troops, riding in 16 Ethiopian tanks and armored vehicles, were positioned about 75 miles north of Kismayo on Saturday. A trickle of Somalis began to leave the city in anticipation of an attack.
"We are going to advance from different directions to try and encircle the city and force the Islamic group to retreat and so minimize the loss of civilians," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press.
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi called for talks with the Islamic courts movement, but said the government was ready to fight if necessary.
"We are calling on the Somali representatives of the Islamic courts for dialogue and to join us," Gedi said on the outskirts of the capital, where he was meeting with local clan elders to smooth the handover of the city. But he added: "If the remnants of the terrorists try to attack, yes of course bloodshed will take place."
On Friday, Gedi had ruled out immediate talks, even after key Islamic officials traveled to Kenya for possible peace negotiations.
"We cannot talk peace after all this bloodshed," he told The Associated Press at the time.
The conflict in Somalia has drawn the attention of the United States, which is eager to capture suspected al-Qaida terrorists in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet has a maritime task force patrolling international waters off the Somali coast. Gedi said his government was in daily contact with the Americans.
The U.S. government — which says four suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in the Islamic movement — has a counterterrorism task force based in neighboring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said Saturday, meanwhile, that the government was continuing its plans to move to the Somali capital. He also pledged to bring more troops to help secure the region, while Gedi also said he expects to disarm militias in the city within three weeks.
Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government's reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of Africa's largest armies. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977.
In Mogadishu, protesters in some neighborhoods denounced the government on Saturday, while about 300 people held a rally in another area in support of the troops. Many were holding signs and chanting, "We support the government."
Before the Islamists established control, Mogadishu had been ruled by competing clans who came together to support the Islamic fighters. Now, some fear the clans could return to fighting one another and may reject the government's authority. Somalia's complex clan politics have been the undoing of at least 14 attempts to install a government in this violent, anarchic nation.