MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Somali warlords agreed on Friday to merge their forces into a new national army to tame the anarchic nation, but fighting outside the presidential palace where they met showed how hard that task will be.
Warlord gunmen trying to force their way inside fought Somali troops and the shootout — the kind of clash commonplace in Mogadishu for the last 15 years — killed a handful of people.
It underscored the huge challenge President Abdullahi Yusuf’s fledgling government faces to bring peace and security to the Horn of Africa nation after ousting Islamists who had held the capital and the south for half a year. “The warlords have promised to hand over their weapons and militias to the government,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said, adding that a committee had been formed to work out details of what many see as a key step in calming Somalia.
Dinari said warlord gunmen tried to force their way inside Villa Somalia, the presidential compound of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre until his 1991 overthrow ushered in anarchy. “Fighting ensued. It went on for nearly four minutes,” he said. Two militiamen were killed and four wounded, Dinari said, while a warlord ally who declined to give his name said seven warlord gunmen died and 11 were wounded.
The villa, where Yusuf came on Monday in his first visit to the city since 1994 despite being elected president two years ago, is protected by Ethiopian and Somali government troops who ousted the Islamists in a lightning offensive late in December.
The Islamists, who wanted to impose sharia law, had driven out the warlords from much of southern Somalia after taking control of Mogadishu in June following four months’ fighting.
Now the Islamists are on the run. British-based aid agency Oxfam said air raids to pursue them and their suspected al Qaeda allies hiding in southern Somalia had mistakenly killed 70 nomadic herdsmen.
“Under international law, there is a duty to distinguish between military and civilian targets,” it said.
Washington sent a warplane into Somalia on Monday to try to kill top al Qaeda suspects and Ethiopian aircraft have pounded the area for days in an attempt to finish a war that began before Christmas. “Bombs have hit vital water sources as well as large groups of nomads and their animals who had gathered round large fires at night to ward off mosquitoes,” Oxfam said.
While some Somali sources have reported scores of deaths, there has been no independent confirmation. Both Ethiopia and the United States deny hitting civilians.
The United Nations said on Friday food had begun reaching 6,000 fleeing Somalis who were blocked from entering Kenya after Nairobi sealed the border to stop routed Islamists escaping.
The hunt for Islamists has left another 190,000 people cut off from humanitarian relief, the World Food Programme said.
Besides conflict, a drought in early 2006 and floods at the end of the year have piled on misery for Somalis, whose nation was already one of the world’s poorest.
Washington’s strike was its first overt military involvement in Somalia since a disastrous peacekeeping mission in 1994.
It killed up to 10 al Qaeda allies, but missed its main target of three top suspects, the U.S. government said. Washington denies carrying out any further strikes.
Its ally Ethiopia, the region’s major power, wants to withdraw its soldiers in the coming weeks.
Diplomats fear that would leave the government — a 14th attempt at central rule since 1991 — vulnerable to remnant Islamists vowing guerrilla war, warlords seeking to re-create their fiefdoms, and competing clans.
“Deploying an African stabilisation force into Somalia quickly is vitally important to support efforts to achieve stability,” Michael Ranneberger, U.S. ambassador for Kenya and Somalia, said in a newspaper opinion piece.
The African Union says it is willing in principle to send troops. Uganda is ready to provide the first battalion, but is nervous of the risks for its soldiers.
The fledgling government’s security forces on Friday shot at a minibus that passed by an area of Mogadishu which had been closed to traffic after attacks against troops stationed there, witnesses said. Three people were injured, they said.
The Washington Post reported on Friday that a small team of U.S. military personnel entered south Somalia after Monday’s air strike to try to determine casualties.
If true, it would be the first time U.S. troops have been known to be on Somali soil since a 1990s peacekeeping mission ended after militia downed two Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu. Hundreds of Somalis and 18 U.S. troops were killed.
Residents of a village near the central town of Jowhar said five people had been killed in fighting between two Somali sub-clans over grazing land, raising fears of more clashes.