Mogadishu residents, fearing the worst, defy call for disarmament

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Four months ago, in the unaccustomed calm that had settled over this lawless city after Islamist militias took over, Ali Mohammed Nuur thought that it finally was safe to sell the AK-47 rifle he'd used to protect his family.

Today, the Islamists are on the run, having been ousted from power a week ago by an Ethiopian force in support of a weak transitional government.

And on Thursday, as the deadline approached for all Mogadishu residents to hand in their weapons, a first test of the transitional government's power, Nuur stood in one of the city's biggest gun bazaars and purchased another AK-47, for about $50.

"I bought a gun to defend my life and family," said Nuur, 33. "The security situation in Mogadishu is fragile, and everyone like me expects fierce fighting."

The brisk business in weapons despite the government's call for disarmament underscores Somalia's shaky new reality.

The leaders of the transitional government are afraid to enter the capital, as are their 10,000 troops. The government's 1,000 police officers are also outside the city.

As Ethiopian and Kenyan forces pursue Islamist holdouts in a dense forest in southern Somalia, U.S. and other Western diplomats are seeking to assemble an African peacekeeping force to ensure order here.

The power vacuum in Mogadishu is due in part to the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Islamist forces combined with uncertainty over which armed group would move in to take their place.

Washington welcomed the stunning defeat of the Islamists, who'd swept to power seven months earlier with support from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt and Eritrea. U.S. officials had accused them of sheltering at least three al-Qaida operatives and had alleged that they'd taken part in the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. The Bush administration publicly defended the military intervention by Christian-led Ethiopia, which considers itself a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa.

But fears are growing now of a return to the anarchy and clan-based fighting that have plagued Somalia since a 1991 coup. Militiamen loyal to the warlords who fled the Islamist takeover last June have turned up at the same arbitrary checkpoints they once used to terrorize Mogadishu residents. On Thursday, at one warlord's checkpoint north of the city, gunmen fired on an oil tanker truck, wounding three people who'd refused to pay a $40 bribe.

Many moderate Somali Muslims had chafed at the strict Islamic law that the Islamists had imposed but were thankful for a respite from the violence.

"Things are now in completely unfamiliar territory," said Omar Jamal, an expert who runs the Somali Justice and Advocacy Center in Minneapolis. "The government is trying to consolidate its power in the capital, but we know the city is awash with weapons and gangs."

The transitional government, recognized by the United Nations and based in the provincial town of Baidoa since 2004, now has its best chance to control Mogadishu. But its troops and police officers, when they arrive, will be outgunned by the city's militias.

The government's demand that residents surrender their weapons mostly was ignored. As the deadline passed Thursday, only a handful of automatic weapons — two rocket-propelled grenades and two antiaircraft missiles — had been turned in. Government officials said they'd begin to disarm residents forcibly on Saturday.

"It is the government's duty to take all weapons from every corner, from everyone in Mogadishu," Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle said.

It was unclear how the government intended to press its campaign. Government officials said Thursday that 3,500 Islamist fighters were hiding in and around Mogadishu. While Ethiopia — Somalia's traditional enemy — is expected to keep as many as 15,000 troops in the country for several more weeks, Ethiopian officials have said they can't afford the deployment much beyond that.

Many Somalis expressed shock at how quickly the Islamist militias melted away under the five-day Ethiopian air and ground assault last week. Despite the military aid they received from abroad, the Islamists' young fighters — many of them teenage members of a militant faction called "Shabaab," or youth — surrendered Mogadishu without firing a shot.

Operating in parallel to the Kenyan forces who've sealed the border to prevent the Islamists from escaping, U.S. naval ships are deployed off the Somali coast to prevent them from escaping to Yemen in small boats.

On Thursday, American officials pledged $16 million in food and other humanitarian aid to Somalia.

U.S. officials also were promoting the establishment of a multinational African peacekeeping force. On Thursday, Jendayi Frazer, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said Uganda had pledged 1,000 to 2,000 troops.

Frazer planned to meet African and European diplomats Friday in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the force, which she said she hoped would be in place by the end of this month.

When the Islamists controlled Mogadishu, they staged numerous demonstrations against foreign peacekeepers. But some residents now say they'd support a multinational African force if it meant that Ethiopian troops would withdraw.

Foreign peacekeeping missions have a bleak history in Somalia. In 1993, 18 U.S. servicemen deployed as part of a U.N. humanitarian mission were killed in Mogadishu in a battle portrayed in the book and Hollywood film "Black Hawk Down." Months later, then-President Clinton withdrew all 1,200 U.S. troops from Somalia.

(Bengali reported from the United States. Mahad is a McClatchy special correspondent in Mogadishu.)

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