MOGADISHU, Somalia, (AP) – Thousands of Somalis began fleeing Sunday as heavily armed Ethiopian troops supported by tanks and MiG fighter jets closed in on the last remaining stronghold of a militant Islamic movement.
Up to 2,000 people, carrying what they could, streamed out of the southern Somali town of Jilib, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters were wedged between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean and prepared for a final bloody showdown.
In the last 10 days, the Islamic group has been forced from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of attacks led by Ethiopia, the region’s greatest military power. Somalia’s interim government and its Ethiopian allies accuse the Islamic group of harboring extremists linked to al-Qaeda.
In a taped message posted on the Internet Saturday, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, called on Somali Muslims and other Muslims throughout the world to continue the fight against “infidels and crusaders.”
Somalia’s prime minister called for dialogue Saturday, but warned that any resistance by the Islamic group would be met with force. In Kenya, diplomatic efforts were under way to try and secure a peaceful end to the 12-day conflict.
Ibrahim Hassan Adow, the Islamic group’s foreign affairs chief is in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, for talks, Islamic officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The military advance marks a stunning turnaround for Somalia’s government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town, its base of Baidoa, while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia.
The government and Ethiopian troops were about 75 miles north of the front line town of Jilib. Those fleeing were mainly women and children.
“The Islamic militia told us they are committed to defend the town to the death, so we have no other option but to flee”, said Ilse Ali Ilweyn, a father of six who lives in Jilib, the first line of defense for the Islamic group and gateway town to Kismayo, located 65 miles to the south.
The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, has pledged to continue its fight, despite military losses. The group wants to transform Somalia into a strict Islamic state.
“I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah,” Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the group’s leader, told residents in Kismayo Saturday.
“We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy,” he added.
Islamic officials claimed they still had fighters in the capital and were ready for attacks. Late Saturday, an unexplained blast in the capital left one woman dead and two others wounded.
The Ethiopian-backed interim government hopes to close the net before the Islamists can slip away amid reports that some foreign fighters are trying to flee through neighboring Kenya or by boat.
Ethiopia is a close ally of the United States, which is keen to capture suspected al-Qaida terrorists in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. government, which says four suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in the Islamic movement in Africa, has a counterterrorism task force based in neighboring Djibouti and has been training Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to protect their borders.
The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet also has a maritime task force patrolling international waters off the Somali coast. Gedi said his government was in daily contact with the U.S.
Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government’s reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population. Ethiopia and Somalia fought bloody wars in 1964 and 1977.