MOGADISHU, Somalia, AP -Islamic fighters on Wednesday drove secular militiamen out of a strategic town in southern Somalia following a brief firefight and the fleeing of militia leaders in the middle of the night, witnesses said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, but residents were fleeing for fear of unrest in the town of Jowhar, about 55 miles from the capital of Mogadishu, which the Islamic fighters seized from the secular militiamen last week.
The Islamic Courts Union had been building up troops around Jowhar in recent days to finish off their rivals, the warlord-led Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism. The town had been the alliance’s last remaining stronghold in southern Somalia.
Clan elders in Jowhar had urged the warlords to leave the town in order to avoid a confrontation, two Somali officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Witnesses told The Associated Press that the warlords did not want to be disarmed by the Islamic fighters and fought their way out of the town.
Just before morning prayers at dawn Wednesday, witnesses also reported skirmishes between some Islamic fighters and secular militiamen about 10 miles outside Jowhar. There were no casualties reported and the fighting stopped soon after.
One alliance warlord, Issa Ahmed, said he was still in Jowhar — his hometown — and he would defend it if anybody attacked.
The warlords who fled late Tuesday included two former members of Somalia’s transitional government, Mohamed Qanyare Afrah and Botan Isse Allen, the officials said. They were loyal to Mohammed Dheere, the alliance’s main leader who was reportedly in Ethiopia trying to raise support for his forces.
Mohamed Jama, a militiaman loyal to Qanyare, confirmed to The Associated Press that Qanyare and Allen had left Jowhar at night with some pickups mounted with machine-guns and scores of militiamen. He said they were now in the town of El Bur, 200 miles northeast of Mogadishu.
U.S. officials have said they supported the warlords’ fight against Islamic leaders accused of harboring three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991, when largely clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. An interim government, formed with the support of the United Nations, has failed to assert any real control outside its base in Baidoa, 155 miles from Mogadishu.
The U.S. State Department has announced that it would form a Somali Contact Group on Thursday in New York to address the situation in Somalia.