MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies took control of the former U.S. embassy building in Mogadishu on Friday, tightening their hold on the capital after Islamist rivals fled. “Ethiopian troops and government soldiers have settled in the compound of the former U.S. embassy. I can see more than 30 Russian-made military trucks,” said Abdi Hassan, one of hundreds of local residents gathered outside the former U.S. mission.
The embassy compound, in a western neighbourhood of the coastal city, was abandoned more than a decade ago after U.S. forces made a humiliating retreat from Somalia following an ill-fated mission depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down”.
Government forces took effective control of Mogadishu on Thursday after a 10-day offensive with Ethiopian allies to reclaim much of the territory seized by the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) since June.
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamad Gedi said parliament would vote to declare martial law to maintain control of a country which has been without an effective central government since the 1991 overthrow of a dictator.
The flight of the Islamists was a dramatic turn-around in the Horn of Africa nation after they had spread across the south imposing strict sharia rule and confining the interim government to its base in the provincial town of Baidoa until less than two weeks ago.
Ethiopian troops and air strikes were critical to the government’s assault, experts say, and there is some question what will happen when Addis Ababa finally withdraws its forces.
With Eritrea accused of backing the Islamists, many feared the conflict could engulf the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, like the United States, says the Islamists are supported by Al Qaeda.
Gedi on Thursday celebrated a triumphant return to his home village outside Mogadishu for the first time since 2002. He acknowledged the chaotic country was far from stable. “This country has experienced anarchy and in order to restore security we need a strong hand, especially with freelance militias,” he said.
Gedi told reporters in Mundul Sharey, a dusty village some 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Mogadishu, parliament would declare martial law on Saturday for three months.
Terrified of yet more violence in a city that has become a byword for chaos, some Mogadishu residents had taken to the streets to cheer government troops, while others hid. Some SICC fighters ditched their uniforms to avoid reprisals. “We are here to stay. We will not leave. It has taken us a lot of effort to capture Mogadishu,” Somali government soldier Yusuf Elmi told Reuters on the streets of the bullet-scarred city.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said the Islamists had fled to the southern port city of Kismayu and that the administration now controlled 95 percent of Somalia. But analysts said a government victory was in no way certain and that the conflict could be about to take another turn. “I think we’re at a crossroads right now,” said Ken Menkhaus, Horn of Africa specialist at Davidson College in Charlotte, North Carolina. He said the government could exploit splits within the SICC and attract some members to join a unity government. “But alternatively this could be the beginning of a new kind of war,” Menkhaus said. “One in which the Islamists are going to fight their kind of war … an assymetrical war involving a combination of hit and run guerrilla attacks, car bombings, assassinations and possibly even selected acts of terrorism on other parts of East Africa.”
Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said his forces were united and determined to push out Ethiopian forces, but had retreated to avoid more bloodshed.
The SICC had brought a semblance of stability to Mogadishu after chasing U.S.-backed warlords from the city in June. Residents said order had collapsed with their departure.