MOGADISHU, Somalia – Ethiopian-backed government forces captured the last remaining stronghold of the Islamic movement in Somalia, the defense minister said Friday, a victory announced hours after warlords met with the president and promised to enlist their militiamen in the army.
As government forces seized the southern coastal hideout — a suspected Al Qaeda training camp — after a five-day battle, Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire said fighting was likely to continue as they chased fleeing Islamic militia into nearby forests.
The fall of Ras Kamboni, at the southern tip of Somalia and just 1.8 miles from the Kenyan border, occurred as President Abdullahi Yusuf met with clan warlords to discuss establishing enough security to allow international peacekeepers to deploy in Somalia — and to protect his government until it can establish an effective police force and army.
Yusuf's government has only been able to move into Mogadishu because Ethiopian troops last week routed an Islamic fundamentalist movement that had controlled most of Somalia for the past six months. Meanwhile, a clan fight over parking left at least six people dead.
The agreement and the clan gunbattle sent mixed signals: one of promise that the anarchy could come to an end in Somalia, the other a reminder of the chaos that has dominated this Horn of Africa country for the past 16 years.
Yusuf must now deal with clan divisions that have spoiled the last 13 attempts to form an effective government since the last one collapsed in 1991. Besides clan divisions, remnants of the Islamic movement and resentment of Ethiopia's intervention also are likely to bedevil the government for some time to come.
The clan fighting Friday afternoon began when gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade and briefly exchanged fire with government troops. One fighter said the gunbattle was sparked by a dispute over where to park an armored car. At least six were killed, 10 wounded.
Nevertheless, government officials said the meeting between Yusuf and three top warlords was a success.
"The warlords and the government have agreed to collaborate for the restoration of peace in Somalia," said government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari. "The agreement means they have to disarm their militia and their men have to join the national army."
There are believed to be around 20,000 militiamen in Somalia and the country is awash with guns. The government's call last week for countrywide disarmament went unheeded.
One of Somalia's most powerful warlords, Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, told the AP the warlords were "fed up" with guns and ready to cooperate.
However, another warlord spelled out a warning.
"If the government is ready to reconcile its people and chooses the right leadership, I hope there is no need to revolt against it," said Muse Sudi Yalahow, whose fighters control north Mogadishu. "If they fail and lose the confidence of the people, I think they would be called new warlords."
The United States, United Nations and the African Union all want to deploy peacekeepers to stop Somalia from returning to clan-based violence and anarchy.
Since Tuesday, there have been at least three attacks on government forces and their Ethiopian allies, killing five people, witnesses in the capital said.
"Deploying an African stabilization force into Somalia quickly is vitally important to support efforts to achieve stability," U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger said in an opinion piece in Kenya's Nation Newspaper.
But so far no one on the continent beyond Uganda has responded to the call for 8,000 African peacekeepers for Somalia. Uganda has indicated it is willing to deploy 1,500 peacekeepers as part of a wider mission.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki said in a statement on a government Web site Friday that U.S. involvement in Somalia is creating turmoil in the Horn of African region and would "incur dangerous consequences." Eritrea and Ethiopia are bitter rivals.
Late Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to redouble efforts to stabilize Somalia and reiterated his concern that U.S. attacks were harming civilians and could have "unintended consequences."
Ranneberger said there had been only one U.S. airstrike and no civilians had been injured.
Recent air attacks against the fleeing Islamic movement have killed 70 nomadic herdsmen in the last four days, British charity Oxfam said Friday, citing a Somali partner organization. It said the deaths occurred near Afmadow, about 220 miles southwest of Mogadishu.
The nomads were gathering around a fire when they were hit, Oxfam said in a statement. It did not say who was behind the bombing or what day the attack occurred. In addition to the air strike confirmed by the U.S., the Ethiopians have used attack helicopters in Somalia.
The U.N. food agency said is begun distributing food to 18,000 Somalis, many women and children who fled fighting in the south. Another 190,000 are in desperate need of food, the agency said.
Ethiopia sent troops on Dec. 24 to attack the Somali Islamic fundamentalist movement. Most of the Islamic militiamen have dispersed, but a few hardcore members have fled south toward the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean, and others in hiding in the capital have threatened to wage guerrilla war.