KISMAYO, Somalia – Somalia's president returned to the beleaguered capital on Monday, his first visit since taking office, while his forces and Ethiopian troops laid siege to an Islamic movement's last military foothold.
President Abdullahi Yusuf took office in 2004 but had not set foot in Mogadishu for 40 years and has spent much of his time as Somalia's leader outside the country because he considered the capital unsafe. His arrival came 10 days after his forces — backed by Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes — drove the Islamic movement out of the city.
Remnants of the Islamic force are believed hiding in the capital and gunmen attacked Ethiopian troops Sunday in the second straight day of violence in the city.
Yusuf's troops and their Ethiopian backers appeared close to capturing a jungle hideout used by the Islamic militants, their last foothold in Somalia and a suspected Al Qaeda base.
Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire said government troops were poised to enter the Islamic stronghold at Ras Kamboni, on the southernmost tip of Somalia between the sea and the Kenyan border, after a fierce two-day battle. U.S. warships were patrolling the coastline and the Kenyan military was securing its border.
Skirmishes were still taking place outside Ras Kamboni and both sides had suffered heavy casualties, Shire said.
U.S. officials said after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that extremists with ties to Al Qaeda operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and that Al Qaeda members are believed to have visited it. The alleged mastermind of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, escaped to Ras Kamboni, according to testimony from one of the convicted bombers.
Leaders of the Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war and Al Qaeda chief Usama bin Laden's deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on the Ethiopian troops fighting in their country, according to a taped message posted on the Internet Friday.
Ethiopia intervened in Somalia on Dec. 24 to help defeat the Islamic movement that threatened to overthrow the internationally recognized government, which at the time controlled only the western town of Baidoa.
Many in predominantly Muslim Somalia resent having troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The countries fought two brutal wars, the last in 1977.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Then they turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million into anarchy.
Yusuf, 72, last visited Mogadishu 40 years ago, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press. A former colonel in the Somalia army during the 1960s, Yusuf was jailed by Barre when he refused to cooperate in a coup d'etat in 1969. With Ethiopian support, he launched a rebellion against Barre during the 1980s.
When he took office in 2004, members of the government quickly split over its priorities and where it should be located. His closeness to Ethiopia also had caused tension within the government.
Yusuf was expected to meet with traditional Somali elders and stay at the former presidential palace that for the last 15 years has been occupied by warlords, Dinari said. Security across the capital was tight, though Dinari claimed: "There are no security concerns at all."
Yusuf was believed have been the target of a car bomb assassination attempt in September in Baidoa. His government blamed the Islamic movement, which denied having anything to do with it.
Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, said Sunday that the United States would use its diplomatic and financial resources to support the government. The U.S. has pledged US$40 million in political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance.
The African Union has begun planning for peacekeepers and Uganda has promised at least 1,000 troops. Frazer has said she hopes the first troops will begin arriving in Mogadishu before the end of the month.
The mission will be modeled on a peacekeeping force that recently concluded duty in Burundi. African troops there provided security for political leaders and key facilities while a new government took over the country. Like the AU mission in Burundi, a mission to Somalia could be switched to a U.N. operation if necessary, Frazer said.
Frazer said Somalia is important to the United States because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean. The U.S. also wants to make sure international terrorists do not take advantage of Somali's chaos to establish a haven here.