Somalia warlords agree to put down weapons


MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – As Somalia’s warlords were signing a deal to lay down their weapons, six militiamen were gunned down just yards away in a dispute over a parking spot.

Their bodies were propped up against a bullet-scarred wall opposite the presidential palace on Friday – a stark reminder of the challenges facing the government as it tries to restore order and establish real authority in this fractious, heavily armed country.

The government was only able to enter Mogadishu two weeks ago after Ethiopian troops routed an Islamic movement that had controlled most of southern Somalia for the past six months.

Now it must deal with clan divisions that have spoiled the last 13 attempts to form an effective government since the last one collapsed in 1991.

There are believed to be around 20,000 militiamen in Somalia and the country is awash with guns. Other obstacles include remnants of the Islamic movement – some are believed to be hiding in Mogadishu – and resentment among some Somalis of Ethiopia’s intervention in the war.

Hours after the signing, Defense Minister Col. Barre “Hirale” Aden Shire said Ethiopian-backed government forces had captured the last remaining stronghold of the Islamic movement after five days of fighting in the southern town of Ras Kamboni. He said Ethiopian and Somali forces chased fleeing Islamic fighters into nearby forests and the fighting would continue.

Ras Kamboni is in a rugged coastal area a few miles from the Kenyan border. It is not far from the site of a U.S. airstrike Monday targeting suspected al-Qaida militants – the first U.S. offensive in Somalia since 18 American soldiers were killed here in 1993.

The agreement reached Friday between President Abdullahi Yusuf and the clan warlords aimed to establish enough security in the capital so international peacekeepers can deploy and protect the government until it can establish an effective police force and army.

“The warlords and the government have agreed to collaborate for the restoration of peace in Somalia,” said government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari. “The agreement means they have to disarm their militia and their men have to join the national army.”

One of Somalia’s most powerful warlords, Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, told The Associated Press after the meeting the clans were “fed up” with guns and ready to cooperate.

But another warlord issued a warning to the government.

“If the government is ready to reconcile its people and chooses the right leadership, I hope there is no need to revolt against it,” said Muse Sudi Yalahow, whose fighters control northern Mogadishu. “If they fail and lose the confidence of the people, I think they would be called new warlords.”

Friday’s fighting in the capital began when clan gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade and briefly exchanged gunfire with government troops. The battle, which one militiaman said was sparked by a dispute over where to park an armored car, left at least six dead and 10 wounded.

Since Tuesday, there have been several attacks against government forces and their Ethiopian allies, and five people have been killed, witnesses said. In addition, assailants threw a grenade into a Mogadishu hotel late Thursday, killing a government soldier, said lawmaker Jini Boqor. The hotel is used by Somalia’s police chief.

The United States, United Nations and the African Union all want to deploy peacekeepers to stop Somalia from returning to clan-based violence and anarchy. But so far no African governments have responded to the call for an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force for the country, although Uganda has indicated it is willing to send 1,500 peacekeepers as part of a wider mission.

Late Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to redouble efforts to stabilize Somalia and reiterated his concern that U.S. attacks were harming civilians and could have “unintended consequences.”

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki said in a statement on a government Web site Friday that U.S. involvement in Somalia is creating turmoil in the Horn of African region and would “incur dangerous consequences.” Eritrea and Ethiopia are bitter rivals.

Ethiopian and U.S. forces are pursuing three top al-Qaida suspects believed to be in Somalia. The U.S. has repeatedly accused the Somali Islamist movement of harboring the suspects, wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Recent air attacks against the fleeing Islamic movement have killed 70 nomadic herdsmen in the last four days, British charity Oxfam said Friday, citing its local Somali partner organizations. It said the deaths occurred near Afmadow, about 220 miles southwest of Mogadishu.

The United States has said it only conducted one airstrike and no civilians were killed. The Ethiopian military has used attack helicopters against militants in Somalia.

The U.N. food agency said it has started distributing food to 18,000 Somalis, many of whom were women and children and had fled fighting in the south. The agency said ongoing military activity meant they could not get food to another 190,000 people who were desperately in need.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.