Protesters rage in capital

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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Hundreds of furious protesters crowded the streets Saturday, burning tires and smashing car windows while denouncing the presence of Ethiopian forces and shouting defiance at the interim Somali government’s call for disarming Mogadishu.

At least two people died in the violence, which exposed discontent in a city seeing its first legitimate governing force in years. Soldiers loyal to the U.N.-backed government and Ethiopia’s military drove out a radical Islamic group last week that had been in control six months.

“We are protesting against the disarmament and the Ethiopian presence in the country. We cannot accept disarmament under occupation,” Haeyle Abdulle Hussein, 23, told The Associated Press. “We will wage a holy war instead.”

It was not immediately clear what prompted the bloodshed or who was responsible. A 13-year-old boy was killed by gunfire and at least 17 people suffered bullet wounds, said Dr. Dahir Mohamud, a physician at Medina Hospital.

An Ethiopian soldier died when his hand grenade accidentally exploded, according to a nurse at the hospital who did not want her name published for fear of reprisals.

Many in predominantly Muslim Somalia resent having troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The countries have fought two brutal wars, the last in 1977.

Shopkeepers closed their businesses and public buses stopped running along Mogadishu’s crumbling streets as gunfire crackled all day. Women in flowing Somali dresses and veils shouted “Down with Ethiopia!” as they marched through this ruined seaside town.

The government announced earlier in the day that it was postponing plans to forcibly disarm the city – an operation that had been set to begin Friday, but didn’t.

“The prime minister has decided to postpone disarming people by force until an unspecified time,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told AP. He did not say why Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi reversed his earlier order.

Dinari also said the protesters represented only a small portion of Mogadishu’s population and described them as remnants of the Council of Islamic Courts, which imposed strict Quranic law and threatened criminals with public floggings and executions.

“We welcome any demonstration without violence, but those guys only want to create unrest,” Dinari said.

One of the protesters, Dahil Abukar, said the disarmament plan was unfair.

“We don’t want disarmament only in Mogadishu, we want all the people (of Somalia) and all the clans to be disarmed simultaneously,” he said.

Mogadishu is awash in weapons after more than 15 years of civil war and anarchy. Somalia’s last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other.

Some Islamic fighters who have been hiding in Mogadishu since the Islamic movement’s main force fled last week said Friday that they would heed a call from an al-Qaida leader for guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings against Ethiopian troops.

The American government has said it believes three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa are among the leaders of Somalia’s Islamic movement. The group’s leadership denies having any links to the terror network.

Somali officials said the movement’s main force is bottled up at Ras Kamboni, the southernmost tip of the country, surrounded by government and Ethiopian troops and cut off from escape by sea by patrolling U.S. warships.

There was no word on whether a promised government assault had begun at Ras Kamboni. Somalia’s interior minister, Hussein Aideed, said Saturday only that government and Ethiopian troops were in the process of “clearing the region.”

Ethiopian soldiers, tanks and warplanes intervened in Somalia on Dec. 24, turning the war against an Islamic militia that had won control of much of the south and was threatening the interim Somali government in its only stronghold, the western city of Baidoa.

But, having provided the military might to rout Islamic fighters, Ethiopia’s government now wants to pull out in a few weeks because it is a poor nation and cannot afford to keep its troops here as peacekeepers.

The transitional government is rushing to train and expand its own military and police, but many fear a power vacuum and an international diplomatic effort is under way to persuade other African nations to contribute a total of 8,000 soldiers for a peacekeeping force.

Jendayi Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Africa, met Saturday with the presidents of Yemen and Djibouti, countries that have influence with various Somali leaders to seek their help in stabilizing the country.

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