MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Residents of southern Mogadishu fled their homes for fear of more fighting Wednesday, a day after Islamic militiamen seized a clan-held checkpoint just outside Somalia’s capital in an hourlong battle that killed six people, witnesses said.
“Hundreds of people, mainly women and children, can be seen fleeing, fearing that fighting might flare up at any moment,” Dahir Yare told The Associated Press by telephone.
The 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 militia officials 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. 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.
The checkpoint connecting Mogadishu to the Lower Shabelle region was manned by members of the Habar Gidir clan who had been charging motorists to pass. The fighting killed three clan gunmen and three civilians, clan leader Abdi Kaibdid said.
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 from Mogadishu.
Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said it was too soon to characterize Aweys’ leadership.
“Let’s be cautious and try to see if there is a trend that clearly shows a move to an extremist agenda,” Dagne said.
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.