MOGADISHU, Somalia – Hundreds fled their homes Wednesday as an Islamic militia that controls Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia faced off with clan members who had been charging motorists a fee to enter or leave the capital.
The Islamic militia broke up the checkpoint just outside southern Mogadishu on Tuesday in a battle that killed six people -- three civilians and three clan members. By Wednesday, the clan had regrouped and deployed hundreds of fighters to the area, raising fears of fresh fighting.
"We have left our house because we are afraid to be trapped between the opposing militias," said Sahra Yusuf, a mother of six.
Militiamen loyal to Habar Gidir clan leader Abdi Hassan Awale were massed just 500 meters (550 yards) from Islamist fighters, said Hassan Fidow, whose restaurant is nearby. Awale, a former police chief, is also known as Abdi Qeybdiid.
Abdi-rahin Adow, the secretary of the Islamic militia, said Mogadishu was under control but he declined to comment on Tuesday's checkpoint raid -- an attack that was an apparent violation of the group's recent pledge to stop all military action.
The Islamic militia took control of Mogadishu and most of the rest of southern Somalia this month. It signed an agreement last week to stop all military action and recognize the country's powerless U.N.-backed interim government. But militias subsequently voted to replace their relatively moderate leader, who also had been reaching out to the West, with a radical cleric whom the U.S. has accused of links to al-Qaeda.
Salad Ali Jelle, deputy information minister for Somalia's interim government, said the militia's attack on the checkpoint was a clear breach of the cease-fire.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law. Many of the capital's residents applauded the Islamic group for forcing the warlords from Mogadishu, despite concerns the militia may try to remake Somalia into a theocracy akin to Afghanistan under the Taliban.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday that the United States has no plans to engage with the group's new leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. terrorist watch list as a suspected collaborator with al-Qaeda.
Aweys, 71, told the AP Monday that he will honor his more moderate predecessor Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed's agreement to meet with interim government leaders next month. He said he plans to tell them that Islamic rule is the only option for Somalia.
Underlining the apparent tougher line under Aweys' leadership, militia leaders said they will publicly stone to death four suspected rapists if they are convicted Thursday in Jowhar, 55 miles (90 kilometers) from Mogadishu.
Washington has long-standing concerns that Somalia will become a refuge for members of bin Laden's terror network, much like Afghanistan did in the late 1990s. The U.S. has accused the Islamic militia of harboring al-Qaeda leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. backed the warlords in their fight against the Islamic militia.