MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somali troops backed by Ethiopians prepared to launch a major assault Friday on the last stronghold of Islamic movement militiamen. U.S. Navy warships were patrolling off the Somali coast to prevent the militiamen from escaping by sea.
The Somali and Ethiopian force captured a southern town near the Kenyan border Thursday evening. Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire, the Somali defense minister, said Islamic militiamen were dug in with their backs to the sea at Ras Kamboni at the southernmost tip of Somalia.
"Today we will launch a massive assault on the Islamic courts militias. We will use infantry troops and fighter jets," said Shire, who left for the battle zone on Friday. "They have dug huge trenches around Ras Kamboni but have only two options: to drown in the sea or to fight and die."
Somali government and Ethiopian troops routed the Council of Islamic Courts militia last week, driving them out of the capital and their strongholds in southern Somalia.
Al Qaeda's deputy leader urged Somalia's Islamic militia to ambush and raid Ethiopian forces with land mines and suicide attacks, according to an Internet audiotape posted Friday.
"I speak to you today as the crusader Ethiopian invasion forces violate the soil of the beloved Muslim Somalia," Ayman al-Zawahiri said in the audiotape. Ethiopia has a large Christian population.
"Launch ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats until you consume them as the lions and eat their prey," al-Zawahiri added.
The more than five-minute audiotape could not immediately be verified but was aired on a Web site frequently used by militants and carried the logo of Al Qaeda's media production wing, al-Sahab.
Three Al Qaeda suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Islamic movement in Somalia. The movement's leaders deny having any links to terror network.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf told top diplomats at a meeting in Nairobi Friday that his country has a rare opportunity to reverse 15 years of anarchy, but needs international help to do it.
The diplomats from the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East met to explore ways to help the Somali government following the defeat of the Islamic movement that sought to rule the country by Islamic law.
Jendayi Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Africa, said Thursday after meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that Uganda would supply between 1,000 and 2,000 peacekeepers and that they could begin arriving in Somalia before the end of the month.
The Islamic movement has vowed to launch and Iraq-style guerrilla war, raising the prospect of bloody reprisals against foreign peacekeepers.
Somalia's interior minister said Thursday that 3,500 Islamic fighters are still hiding in the capital.
Kenya closed its border amid fears militants would slip across the frontier. The U.N. said thousands of refugees are also near the border, unable to seek safety in Kenya.
Residents of Mogadishu, Somalia's ruined seaside capital, have been on edge since the government took over. The city is still teeming with weapons, and some of the feared warlords of the past have returned to the city with their guns.
Ethiopian MiG fighter jets and tanks were vital to helping the weak Somali military rout the Islamists. Now, though, Ethiopia wants to pull out in a few weeks, saying its forces cannot be peacekeepers and cannot afford to stay.
Since January 2005, the seven-nation Intergovernmental Authority on Development has offered to send a peacekeeping mission to Somalia, but it has not materialized because of a 1992 arms embargo on Somalia. The U.N. Security Council partially lifted the arms embargo in December to allow such a mission.
There have also been divisions within Somalia's transitional government and parliament over such a move and, when the Islamic movement controlled Mogadishu, there were demonstrations against any foreign peacekeepers.
Somalia's history with foreign intervention has been dark.
A U.N. peacekeeping force, including U.S. troops, arrived in 1992. The next year, fighters loyal to clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters and battled American troops, killing 18 servicemen. The U.S. pulled out soon afterward, and the U.N. scaled down.
The ease with which Somalis can get weapons is a major problem. Thursday was Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi's deadline for residents to voluntarily give up their arms, but only a handful were seen doing so. But Gedi said the disarmament program was working.
Somalia's last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. The current government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but has been weakened by internal rifts.
Gedi swore in thousands of troops into the army Friday who had served under Siad Barre's regime. Most were well over 50, wore old uniforms and carried no weapons.
Hassan Hashi Mohamed, 60, said he saved his camouflage uniform for 16 years.
"They called on us from the radio, so we came here," Hassan Hashi Mohamed, 60, said from a former base of Barre in Mogadishu, where the troops had gathered. "We are old now, but we will get some young men too."