MOGADISHU, Somalia – An Islamic militia said Monday it has seized Somalia’s capital after weeks of bloody fighting and 15 years of anarchy in this Horn of Africa nation, raising fears that the nation could fall under the sway of al-Qaida.
The militia appeared in control of Mogadishu. Most of the leaders of a secular alliance that opposed them — and was rumored to be backed by the United States — appeared to have fled the city by Monday afternoon.
“We want to restore peace and stability to Mogadishu. We are ready to meet and talk to anybody and any group for the interest of the people,” Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said on a radio broadcast.
The militia has been battling a secular alliance of warlords for control of the country, with the fight intensifying since February. More than 300 people have been killed and 1,700 wounded, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
The secular alliance says the militias have links to al-Qaida. Attempts to reach alliance leaders were not immediately successful.
The United States is widely believed to be backing the secular alliance in an attempt to root out any al-Qaida members operating in the Horn of Africa, but American officials have refused to comment.
The United States has not carried out any direct action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said recently that three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania are being sheltered by Islamic leaders in Mogadishu.
The same al-Qaida cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15 people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
The fundamentalists accuse the alliance of working for the
Somalia, an impoverished country of 8 million, has been divided into rival fiefdoms since 1991, when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The Islamic militants are the first group to consolidate control over all of Mogadishu’s clan-divided neighborhoods since then, giving them enormous political and economic power in Somalia.
The Islamic militants and their secular rivals began competing for influence after a U.N.-backed interim government slowly began to gain international recognition. But the interim government has failed to assert control outside its base in Baidoa, 155 miles from Mogadishu.
The government has not even been able to enter the capital because of the violence.
Interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi recently fired four ministers who are part of the secular alliance, leaving it without any support in the government.
In the past, Islamic leaders have denounced the interim government, insisting that any new law be based on Islamic scripture. But both the president and prime minister have rejected suggestions of forming an Islamic republic.
Mogadishu residents expressed relief at Monday’s relative peace, but had mixed responses to the Islamic militia’s advance.
“The Somali people are afraid of Islamists’ new wave of hatred and renewed fighting. The Islamic clerics want to be like Taliban regime in
Afghanistan,” said Abdulqaadir Bashir, a computer engineer.
But Somali economist Abdinasir Ahmed disagreed, saying: “The victory of Islamic courts is a major step toward a lasting peaceful settlement in Mogadishu. We are tired of the deception and rhetoric of the warlords.”