Unusual Calm Lures Residents Back to Somali Capital

Guns and mortar launchers were silent Friday as residents of Somalia's shattered capital gave mixed reactions to the government's claim of victory after nine days of fierce fighting with Islamic insurgents.

It was not clear how long the peace would last, but some residents made a slow return to their homes. Many city streets were deserted, with no combatants from either side in sight.

"People who want to return to their homes fear because they (Somali government troops and their Ethiopian backers) have set up road blocks," in some parts of the city, said Ahmed Warsame, a 31 year-old high school teacher.

Early Friday, just hours after Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said the Islamic insurgents were finished, a group of masked gunmen attacked the main hotel where government officials live. The attack lasted about an hour, but there were no reports of casualties.

None of the insurgents could be reached for comment. Hawiye clan elders, who have also opposed the government in the past, refused to comment on Gedi's claim.

While some of the most desperate victims of the recent fighting returned to their homes on Friday, few believed that the Islamic insurgents would give up.

"I don't think they accept yesterday's defeat. I believe they will restart the war until they get a victory over the government," said businessman Abdullahi Kulmiye.

Somali and Ethiopian troops have been trying to wipe out the insurgents since late March, with the unrelenting rain of mortar shells and artillery taking the highest toll on civilians. Rights groups say the fighting killed more than 1,000 people and sent up to 400,000 fleeing for safety.

In the past nine days alone, the death toll was more than 400.

Ethiopian troops should restore security in the capital, then withdraw because they, "remind Somalis of the long history of enmity between the two countries," said Farah Mahdi, a 48 year-old former military officer.

"My two sons were killed in the fighting, my daughter was injured. We want Ethiopians to return to their country. They killed all my loved ones. I do not know why they are here," said Hawa Mohyadin, a street vendor who was selling maize and other food stuffs at one of southern Mogadishu's main markets.

"It is good and a victory for Somalis to defeat the insurgents who are linked to Al Qaeda .... They tried to form a Taliban-style government in Somalia. Islamic Courts closed my video hall and they banned khat (a leafy stimulant popular in Mogadishu). This happened in Afghanistan. It is a great day for us," said Suleyman Ali, on the steps of a mosque after attending Friday prayers.

"We have won the fighting against the insurgents," Gedi told The Associated Press on Thursday, saying small, mopping-up operations were still under way and that more than 100 insurgents had surrendered to the government.

Western diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging relations with Somalia's government, said the insurgents had suffered large numbers of casualties and were running low on ammunition, but were not yet defeated.

The government has declared victory before, only to have the insurgents reappear a few weeks later.

Somalia is facing a dire humanitarian crisis after the fighting leveled homes and sent hundreds of thousands of civilians into squalid camps or seeking shelter along roadsides.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs told reporters in Geneva Thursday that more people have been displaced in Somalia than anywhere else in the world this year. He said the fighting has displaced up to 400,000 people and that international aid groups only have access to a fraction of them because of fighting in and around the capital of Mogadishu.

The insurgents are linked to the Council of Islamic Courts, which was driven from power in December by Somali and Ethiopian soldiers, accompanied by U.S. special forces. The U.S. has accused the courts of having ties to Al Qaeda.

The militants reject any secular government, and have sworn to launch an Iraq-style insurgency.

In neighboring Kenya, about 2,000 people held a demonstration in the eastern town of Garissa against Kenyan anti-terrorism police residents allege unfairly targets them for arrest.

Scores of people were detained in January in Garissa, only 62 miles from the border with Somalia, when they crossed the border as Kenya tried prevent members or sympathizers of Somalia's Islamists from entering the country.

The protesters demanded Kenya reopen its border with Somalia and chanted slogans against the U.S., Ethiopia and Kenya and called for all Somali-speaking people in the region to unite. Somali-speaking people are in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya as well as Somalia.

Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy. The current administration was formed in 2004 but has struggled to extend its control over the country.