IFO, Kenya – Somalis are fleeing their homeland in the greatest numbers in years as Islamic militants seize control of more territory and edge closer to a military showdown with the weak interim government.

The new arrivals say Islamist militias are imposing harsh laws within hours of taking over towns, including banning the popular narcotic plant khat, a mainstay of Somali commerce. Refugees said the militias had banned the sale of charcoal for environmental reasons and curtailed key transport routes north to Mogadishu and south to Kenya.

“They came and said they were in control of business and I had to stop selling immediately,” said Mohammed Hussein Abdi, a khat dealer in the southern port of Kismayo, which the Islamists seized last month.

To drive home the point, Abdi said, militiamen tied his hands and beat him for several minutes with sticks and the butts of their guns.

Islam forbids the use of narcotics, but some strict Islamist groups, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Lebanon, have tolerated and even profited from sales of drugs to non-Muslims.

As many as 14,000 Somalis have crossed into neighboring Kenya since September, according to United Nations estimates.

That brings the total for the year to 34,000, the biggest influx since the early 1990s, when the collapse of Mohammed Siad Barre’s dictatorship opened a decade and a half of anarchy that made the Horn of Africa country the world’s best-known failed state.

The new arrivals now huddle alongside 130,000 other Somalis in refugee camps that sprawl across the sandy scrubland of eastern Kenya. Thousands more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, and aid agencies are concerned about high rates of malnutrition and the threat of diseases from over the border, where there’s no functioning health-care system.

Last week, a 3-year-old Somali girl in the camps was diagnosed with polio, the first case of the crippling disease in Kenya in more than two decades. The U.N. has appealed for $35 million in emergency aid to handle the influx.

The rise of the Islamists, who in June took control of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, has spawned fears that a hard-line regime akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan is taking root in the Horn of Africa, where militants loyal to al-Qaida are thought to operate.

The threat of civil war has grown in recent days as the Islamists’ powerful militias advance on the government’s base of power in the provincial town of Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu. On Monday, the Islamists took control of a strategic town 30 miles outside Baidoa when the government withdrew its troops.

Fears of a broader regional conflict also have mounted. The Islamists declared jihad against neighboring Ethiopia for sending troops to back the government. Regional analysts say Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia are aiding the Islamists.

The scene at the main border checkpoint about six miles inside Kenya has been chaotic at times, the limited number of relief workers far outmatched by the numbers of refugees, who must register before they’re sent to one of three camps around the market town of Dadaab.

Refugees often wait several days in the camps to receive plastic sheets, food and other assistance. The region is on the equator, and as the short spring rains fall many new refugees are spending nights in the open or huddled with other families under wobbly wooden shelters covered by thin swatches of fabric.

Last week, Kenya’s government ordered a temporary halt to the arrivals so that screening procedures could be improved after U.N. officials expressed concern that as many as 30 percent of the new arrivals were “recyclers,” refugees coming from the camps to reregister in order to receive more aid.

Despite the conditions, refugees said they had no choice but to flee.

“There will be civil war,” said Habiba Abdi Hassan, 70, who left Kismayo after the Islamist takeover.

Like many Somalis who clung to life in their collapsed society, Hassan was a hardy merchant who’d evolved a way to survive. For 20 years she sold rice, sugar and other staples, paying off a succession of warlords to keep her small business afloat.

She refused to leave, even after her husband and son were killed three years ago in a shootout between rival warlords. But now the threat of war is too great, she said.

She and other former residents of Kismayo huddled in Kenya’s Ifo refugee camp said their livelihoods would have suffered under Islamist rule. In some parts of Somalia, hard-line clerics have outlawed business during prayer times, including much of the holy month of Ramadan.

Many of the refugees are Somali Bantus, descendants of black Africans who spent decades as slaves and whom Arab clans long have persecuted.

“They discriminate against us,” said Mohammed Salad Aden, 32, a farmer from outside Kismayo. “They say you’re not a pure Somali.”

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOMALIA-REFUGEES

AP-NY-10-24-06 0615EDT

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