MOGADISHU (AFP) – Somalia’s interim government has vowed to banish Mogadishu’s reputation for lawlessness to the history books as troops seized heavy weaponry in raids on suspected rebel hideouts in the capital.
While facing an uphill struggle in a country which has been a byword for anarchy, the administration of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed is pushing to assert its authority after the sudden ouster last month of its Islamist rivals.
A day after members of parliament approved the imposition of martial law, Somali government fighters and allies from the Ethiopian army carried out a series of raids in the southern Mogadishu stronghold of the vanquished Islamist movement.
Announcing the seizure of rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, heavy machine-guns and AK-47 rifles during the raids, a spokesman for the government said the rule of law rather than the gun would prevail in the future.
“This city will not be a hideout for freelance gunmen. The days of terrorising people are over,” said Abdirahman Dinari Sunday.
“The government is determined to enhance security in Mogadishu and the safety of our people is a priority.”
Somalia has been devoid of an effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
Yusuf’s government was formed in Kenya in 2004 and returned to Somalia the following year but, unable to go to Mogadishu, had to set up in Baidoa some 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of the capital.
After years of clashes between rival warlords, an Islamist coalition took control of Mogadishu last June. But while they managed to restore a degree of order, they suddenly fled last month after Ethiopia linked up with the transitional government and marched on the capital.
Dinari told reporters the Islamists were a spent force after being uprooted from their final hideout in the south of the country over the weekend.
“The Islamists and their foreign fighters are currently in forests … Ground forces supported by Ethiopians will take care of them,” he added.
“They are not a viable force anymore, but a bunch of fugitives.”
The Islamists, accused by many of harboring Al-Qaeda members, have also been the target of the US military which carried out an air strike on southern Somalia last Monday.
Washington has denied any civilians were killed in its sole air strike, which it claims killed between eight and 10 Al-Qaeda affiliates, but has admitted there may have been civilian casualties in subsequent Ethiopian raids.
Clan elders and aid workers have said between 70 and 100 civilians were killed in the air raids, but Dinari denounced the figures as “exaggerated.”
The interim administration may be confident of having crushed the Islamists but it is still wary of allowing the warlords to fill the vacuum.
Although seven key Mogadishu warlords agreed to disarm their fighters and join Yusuf’s fledgling government at talks on Friday, few people are confident that such a deal will stick.
Even as the accord was being negotiated, forces loyal to one of the warlords engaged in a deadly firefight with security forces outside the talks’ venue.
The scale of the task ahead was further underlined Sunday when troops ended up seizing weapons during a raid on one of Mogadishu’s hospitals.
“They entered the hospital building and then they took all the weapons from the guards. I saw more than ten AK-47s taken from the guards,” a member of the private Arafat hospital’s staff told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Ethiopian troops who took part in Sunday’s raids look set to remain in Somalia for some weeks yet until African Union peacekeepers can step in.
Dinari confirmed that an AU delegation had held talks with Yusuf but indicated that the deployments were some way off.
“They discussed the modalities on the deployment of peacekeepers. As soon they are deployed, they will replace the Ethiopian troops and that might take a month or so.”