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Somali government troops enter capital

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Government troops and allied forces from neighboring Ethiopia swept into Mogadishu on Thursday without firing a shot after Islamic militants abandoned Somalia's capital.

Once considered unbeatable, the Council of Islamic Courts was left holding only a small pocket of territory around the southern port city of Kismayo. Only days earlier, the militants had controlled much of Somalia.

But the routing of the loose alliance of Islamic militants after only a week of fighting did not mean an end to the years of war and suffering that have racked the impoverished country of 9 million in the Horn of Africa.

There were grave fears that hard-core Somali Islamists, bolstered by foreign radicals, would fight a guerrilla insurgency against Somalia's Western-backed interim federal government and its protectors from Ethiopia, a country with a population divided between Christians and Muslims.

Moreover, even as Somali government and Ethiopian troops moved into Mogadishu, gunmen from rival clans that had fought over the city for years before the Islamists drove them out began reappearing in the streets.

The Council of Islamic Courts overran much of Somalia after seizing Mogadishu in July from clan militias that the United States had funded secretly. Many Somalis welcomed the militants because they ended years of lawlessness, even though they employed harsh Islamic punishments.

Ethiopia, which has one of Africa's strongest militaries, intervened last week at the request of the transitional federal government, a U.N.-recognized alliance of clan and political strongmen that the Islamists had penned up in the town of Baidoa.

The Bush administration, which has accused the Council of Islamic Courts of being in league with al-Qaida, gave tacit approval to Ethiopia's intervention.

Somali troops backed by Ethiopian ground forces and fighter jets advanced rapidly out of Baidoa, overrunning many areas without fights. Lightly armed Council of Islamic Courts fighters withdrew in headlong flight, although their leaders called it a tactical retreat.

Government and Ethiopian forces entered Mogadishu unopposed Thursday afternoon from the north, while a second column moving from the south halted short of the city's boundaries.

Ethiopia had said that its troops wouldn't move into Mogadishu. It apparently changed its mind after Council of Islamic Courts leaders and fighters fled the city southward toward Kismayo.

In the power vacuum, shots echoed around the city and gunmen robbed shops and held up civilians. Looters stripped offices that the militants had abandoned. At least three civilians were reported killed and more than 10 injured.

"We will not let Mogadishu burn," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in Addis Ababa.

Some residents welcomed the government and Ethiopian forces as they moved through the blighted streets to the Hotel Ramadan, which the Islamists had used as their headquarters.

The situation stabilized enough that small shops reopened late in the day.

Ali Gedi, the interim Somali prime minister, flew in an Ethiopian helicopter to the town of Afgoye, outside Mogadishu, to meet with clan elders, businessmen and intellectuals from the city.

Mohammad Jama, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Ismail Hurre, said in a telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya, that they'd discussed restoring the city's government and police forces.

"The object is to settle the situation in Mogadishu," he said. "There is a little chaos and looting. We are going to stop it."

He said government and Ethiopian forces planned to wrest control of Kismayo and pursue Islamic fighters who refused to surrender.

"We are going to finish them once and for all," he said.

But he also said that contacts were under way with moderate Council of Islamic Courts leaders on resuming power-sharing negotiations.

Meles, the Ethiopian prime minister, said he hoped that the Islamists could be crushed and the conflict concluded "in days, if not in a few weeks."

Most Somalis regard Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the last 45 years and has refused to relinquish its ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region, as their deadliest foe.

Moreover, several interim government members and supporters were among the clan-based warlords who dueled over Mogadishu and other parts of the country after a dictatorial regime was overthrown in 1991.

Gunmen who'd fought for the warlords appeared in several parts of Mogadishu after the Islamists left, raising fears of a return to lawlessness.

In a related development, U.N. refugee agency officials reported that at least 17 Somalis had died and some 140 others were missing after smugglers' boats that had carried them across the Gulf of Aden capsized in the dark off the coast of Yemen.

(Elmi, a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent, reported from Mogadishu, Landay from Washington.)

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