MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Islamic militants said Saturday they had seized control of Somalia’s third largest city after three days of fighting that left about 70 people dead.
The Islamic courts movement, which controlled the capital Mogadishu and much of the south for six months in 2006, said it wrested control of the southern port city of Kismayo from clan militias.
About 70 people were killed during the fighting which started Wednesday and 170 were wounded, said Dr. Ali Hassan of Kismayo Hospital.
“Medicine is scarce and there is only one doctor and a few nurses. That shows how we are unable to cope,” said Hassan.
The Islamic courts launched an insurgency in the impoverished country nearly two years ago, but Kismayo would be the biggest city seized since early 2007.
Spokesman Sheik Ibrahim Shukri said its forces moved into Kismayo at the request of its residents and the city “will remain under Islamic control.”
Government officials declined to comment on the claims. Witnesses said Islamist fighters were patrolling the city Saturday allowing people to venture from their homes after some of the worst fighting in the city for months.
Some residents expressed skepticism about whether the fighting had stopped.
“Now the town is calm, but we are still skeptical about the situation,” said Fadumo Nuradin, a resident. “We remained indoors for the last three days, ducking for fear and hiding from the gunshots. But today for the first time we can move freely. The Islamists are patrolling the streets,” said Farah Mo’alim Barre, another resident.
Somalia has not had an effective government in 17 years and thousands of Somalis have been killed during the insurgency.
Ethiopian troops helped the shaky transitional government push the Islamists from power in Mogadishu and much of the south, but failed to establish security or improve the standard of living. The Islamists are known to have bases in parts of southern Somalia.
Col. Abdullahi Hassan Garweyne, a retired military officer, said that it will be difficult for Somali soldiers and their Ethiopian allies to counterattack because of the threat of ambush in difficult terrain between their base in Mogadishu and Kismayo, 255 miles (410 kilometers) away. “The possibility of the defeated militia or any other troops challenging the Islamic militia, who are now in control (of Kismayo) is not simple or realistic,” said Garweyne.
The country has been at war since 1991, when clan-based militias ousted a socialist dictator and then fought for power among themselves. The conflict is complicated by clan loyalties and the involvement of archenemies Eritrea and Ethiopia, who both back opposite sides in the fighting.