MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Somalia’s hard-line Muslim militia forced hundreds of fighters who had been resisting strict Islamic rule to surrender Tuesday after some of the most ferocious fighting in the capital in months.

Fighting since Sunday has killed more than 70 people and wounded 150, and the death toll was expected to rise as the wounded streamed into hospitals. The bloodshed was the latest sign the radical militia won’t tolerate opposition.

The fighters “were holed up inside buildings and we were pounding them with heavy artillery and mortars from every corner,” said Abdi Shakur, a member of the Islamic militia that controls nearly all of southern Somalia. “They had no option but to surrender.”

As in past fighting, many victims were noncombatants caught by stray shells. Hawa Mohamed said a mortar shell killed her 85-year-old grandmother, and the roadblocks erected during the battles prevented the family from burying her.

This Horn of Africa nation has been a particular concern to the United States, which has long feared that Somalia would become a refuge for members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, much like Afghanistan did in the late 1990s.

The Islamic militia wrested Mogadishu from a U.S.-backed secular alliance of warlords last month, bringing weeks of relative calm to a capital that has seen little more than chaos since the last effective central government was toppled in 1991.

One secular warlord, Abdi Awale Qaybdiid, had refused to disarm, sparking the latest offensive against nearly 500 fighters who remained loyal to him. Mortar shells and gunfire shook the city for two days, sending residents into homes and shops or fleeing Mogadishu altogether.

“We will not allow other militiamen in Mogadishu to remain armed,” Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a top Islamic official, said Tuesday.

Mogadishu resident Khadija Osman Ali welcomed Tuesday’s surrender.

“We need peace and stability,” she said.

The city was quiet after the surrender and members of the Islamic militia were going house to house in search of weapons that Qaybdiid’s fighters might have hidden.

Somalia has been without an effective government since warlords overthrew its longtime dictator in 1991 and divided the nation into fiefdoms. The Islamic fundamentalists stepped into the vacuum as an alternative military and political power.

U.S. officials had cooperated with the warlords, hoping to capture three al-Qaida leaders allegedly protected by the Islamic council who are accused in the deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Islamic fighters prevailed, taking the U.S. by surprise and further marginalizing the country’s interim government. The interim body was established with the help of the United Nations but is powerless outside its base in the Somali city of Baidoa.

Relations were deteriorating between the Islamic fighters and the interim government, which said it would not talk with the militia’s radical leader when the two sides meet Saturday in Sudan to negotiate a full peace accord.

The U.N. special representative for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, told the Security Council in New York this week that the rise of “hard-liners” is threatening the peace process.

The Islamic militia has grown increasingly radical since seizing Mogadishu and establishing strict courts based on the Quran. On Tuesday, Ahmed said Somalis should be ready for a holy war against neighboring Ethiopia, Somalia’s longtime enemy.

The Islamists have repeatedly accused Ethiopia of sending troops across the border to boost the transitional government. Somalia’s interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, is allied with Ethiopia and has asked for its support.

Ethiopia denies sending troops.

“The Islamic Courts use these allegations to divert the truth to hide the fact that there are terrorists in Somalia,” said Solomon Abebe, spokesman for Ethiopia’s foreign ministry.



Associated Press writers Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu and Les Neuhaus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.

AP-ES-07-11-06 1418EDT



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