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As Somalia's interim government stumbles, families flee violence

MOGADISHU, Somalia—Through 16 years without a government, as a succession of warlords held sway over her Mogadishu neighborhood, Asli Jamale refused to move her family from her two-room house of mud and brick.

An interim government finally came to Somalia's capital, installed by the Ethiopian army. But last month, after insurgents attacked a government compound near her home, Jamale packed up her three children and a few belongings and paid their way onto a packed bus that was headed out of the city.

Aid agencies estimate that at least 10,000 people have fled Mogadishu in the two months since an Ethiopian military invasion drove Islamist militias from power and the government took over the capital.

Hopes for peace seem to be disappearing. The government—widely seen as a puppet of Ethiopia, Somalia's long-standing enemy—hasn't established any authority. The few Cabinet ministers who've come to Mogadishu don't venture out alone, instead spending their days shuffling among shabby VIP rooms in well-guarded hotels.

Hardly a day goes by without an assassination attempt or drive-by insurgent attack on the government or its Ethiopian allies. The Ethiopians have fired back, often into residential neighborhoods, killing dozens.

Last week, about 30 African Union military officers arrived in Somalia, the advance team for a long-awaited peacekeeping mission that's expected to number in the thousands. But it's unclear whether the peacekeepers—whom Islamists have threatened to attack—will fare any better than the Ethiopians, who Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at first said would stay in Somalia "maybe for two weeks" but are entering their third month.

U.S. officials, who backed the invasion out of a belief that the Islamists had ties to al-Qaida, have pronounced the campaign a success. But residents of Mogadishu say it's created a power vacuum and that unless the government can make peace with its rivals, conditions will be ripe for the return of the Islamists, whose strict religious law brought order to the capital.

"I'm not going to say life under the Islamic Courts was like paradise, but we have never heard the bombs we are hearing today," said Jamale, 50. She was tying branches together with strips of cloth to create a makeshift shelter in a camp 30 miles south of Mogadishu.

No one can say with certainty who's behind the insurgent attacks, but the government has many opponents. Thousands of Islamist fighters still live in the city and still own weapons. And leaders of Mogadishu's dominant clan, the Hawiye, say they've been shut out of government positions by the president, Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord of the northern Darod clan.

"There are many, many actors who do not want this government," said Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, a managing partner of the HornAfrik media corporation. "They are all happy with the violence."

The CIA, which feared the rise of Islamist militias, briefly paid the warlords last year to help sustain them, but the militias took control in June. The Islamists' six months in power were marked by relative peace. While many in Mogadishu chafed at the clerics' ban on Indian movies and the popular narcotic khat, people could walk the sandy streets at night safely and families could visit the city's pristine beaches on weekends for the first time in years.

Somalis and Western diplomats alike think that peace depends on bringing the Islamists' mostly Hawiye supporters into the government. Yusuf has called for a national reconciliation conference but also signaled that he won't negotiate with Islamist leaders.

Most of the government still sits 150 miles outside Mogadishu in the provincial town of Baidoa. There's no money to pay police officers or government troops, who increasingly are being blamed for petty crimes.

The violence is worsening. Last month, insurgents launched mortars at Ethiopian and Somali forces in the former Defense Ministry compound. The troops struck back, killing at least 13 people and injuring 46 in the nearby Black Sea residential neighborhood.


(McClatchy special correspondent Mahad Elmi contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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