Islamic fighters in Mogadishu vow to heed al-Qaida call for attacks

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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Islamic fighters hiding in Mogadishu since their movement’s main force was driven from the Somali capital say they will heed al-Qaida’s call for guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings against Ethiopian troops whose intervention was key to the Islamists’ defeat.

“I am committed to die for the sake of my religion and the al-Qaida deputy’s speech only encourages me to go ahead with my holy war,” 18-year-old Sahal Abdi told The Associated Press, referring to an audio message posted on the Internet on Friday.

Troops of Somalia’s transitional government, backed by the Ethiopian military, routed the Islamic militia from much of southern Somalia, ending their six months in power. The group had brought a semblance of stability here but terrified residents with a version of Quranic rule that included public executions and floggings of criminals.

Interviews with militants who fought with the Council of Islamic Courts and went underground when most of their comrades fled Mogadishu last week suggest their movement is fractured and cut off from its leaders but still motivated for battle.

Somalia’s interior minister says 3,500 fighters are hiding around the capital, raising the specter of an Iraq-style guerrilla war as diplomats meeting in neighboring Kenya agreed Friday on a plan to raise a foreign peacekeeping force for Somalia.

AP contacted several militants by telephone after townspeople identified them as former fighters known from the months when the Islamic movement controlled Mogadishu.

None of those interviewed were leaders and said they are now moving house to house, staying with friends and relatives.

They acknowledged being fighters but refused to be photographed and, in some cases, to give their full names, fearing reprisals from government or Ethiopian troops, although they insisted they hope the movement they served as foot soldiers will rise again.

“The call from the al-Qaida deputy leader is based on Islam and we are adamant in our religion,” said Sheik Musa, who would not identify himself further. “There is no option but to heed his call.”

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged the Islamic movement’s fighters and other Muslims to attack the troops of Christian-dominated Ethiopia, which he called a “crusader” invasion force.

“Launch ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats until you consume them as the lions and eat their prey,” al-Zawahri said in the taped message that aired on a Web site frequently used by militants and carried the logo of al-Qaida’s media production wing, al-Sahab.

Ethiopia, a U.S. ally, has fought two wars with predominantly Muslim Somalia, most recently in 1977, and the Islamic movement has invoked traditional hatreds to rally its supporters.

“This country should be ruled by Islamic law and I am a Muslim,” said Ali Yare, a 35-year-old who expressed pride in the work he did with the Islamic courts militia.

It was not clear what kind of weapons the men have at their disposal, but grenades, mortars and Kalashnikov assault rifles are readily available at the city’s Bakaara Market.

Al-Qaida’s call for revenge came at a precarious time for Somalia’s government, which controlled one town before Ethiopia stepped in with MiG fighter jets, tanks and well-trained soldiers.

Ethiopia now wants to pull its force out in a few weeks, saying its soldiers cannot be peacekeepers and it cannot afford for them to stay. Somalia is trying to train its own military and police while the plan for an international force is put in place.

On Friday, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi welcomed back into his army more than 1,000 men who once served under Mohamed Siad Barre, a military dictator whose ouster at the hands of clan-based warlords in 1991 plunged the country into 15 years of anarchy. Most of the men appeared to be well over 50.

A meeting of U.S., European Union, African and Arab diplomats ended in Kenya on Friday with a U.S. pledge to provide $40 million to Somalia in political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance, and a plan to ask more African nations to send troops to help stabilize the country. Uganda has pledged at least 1,000 peacekeepers.

The EU said it would also help pay for a peacekeeping force envisioned at 8,000 soldiers.

Still supported by Ethiopians, government troops prepared Friday for a major assault on Ras Kamboni, the last stronghold of the Islamic militia. U.S. warships patrolled offshore to prevent militiamen from escaping by sea.

The U.S. 5th Fleet said vessels were being boarded to look for militants, including three al-Qaida suspects wanted for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The Islamic council has denied U.S. allegations that three were leaders in the Somali movement.

Col. Barre “Hirale” Aden Shire, the Somali defense minister, said Islamic militiamen were dug in with their backs to the sea at Ras Kamboni at the southernmost tip of the country.

“Today we will launch a massive assault on the Islamic courts militias. We will use infantry troops and fighter jets,” he said. “They have dug huge trenches around Ras Kamboni but have only two options: to drown in the sea or to fight and die.”

Somalia’s last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew Barre and then turned on each other. The current government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but was weakened by internal rifts.

One Islamic fighter, who refused to have his name published, said Friday that he doesn’t believe the government can last on its own, although he said he hadn’t left his home.

“I’m not scared of the government,” he said, saying he was biding his time in hopes that the Islamic movement comes back.

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