Somali Islamist offensive feared

MOGADISHU (Reuters) — More than 1,000 Islamist fighters deployed to a strategic camp north of Mogadishu on Sunday, witnesses said, sparking fears of a new offensive against warlords.

Islamic forces captured the Somali capital Mogadishu a week ago from a self-styled anti-terrorism alliance of warlords, widely believed to be backed by the United States, after three months of fighting.

It was unclear whether the latest deployment was part of moves to drive out remaining warlords from the capital or to stage an attack on Jowhar, the last warlord stronghold, 60km further north.

Armed with mortars and heavy anti-aircraft guns, the Islamic fighters arrived at the Hiilweyne military camp, seven kilometres from Balad, witnesses said. The fighters already control Balad, 30km outside Mogadishu.

“Huge militia groups were gathered in Hiilweyne this morning. It’s possible this could reignite war,” Hussein Abdi, a resident in Balad, said by telephone.

More than 300 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in the battle for power in Mogadishu, with hundreds more wounded.

Sources close to militia leader Moallim Hashi Mohammad said the new forces were being led by Hassan Abdullah Hersi Turki, a senior member of the Itihaad Islamiya group, which the United States calls a “terrorist” faction with links to Al Qaeda.

Uncertainty about the Islamist forces’ next move may reflect inconsistency within the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of 14 courts with both moderate and hardline Muslim elements.

Political analysts say if the militia captures Jowhar, they will control most of south Somalia, raising questions about whether they will help install a weak interim government or set up a rival administration.

President Abdullahi Yusuf’s fragile government has been careful to welcome the Islamist victory in Mogadishu over warlords, who many blame for undermining it, and is in talks with Islamist leaders to secure their support.

But analysts say it is unclear whether the Islamists would return government to Mogadishu before seizing other key towns, such as Jowhar, the stronghold of powerful warlord Mohammad Dheere, who is in Ethiopia, his aides say.

Diplomats are closely watching the outcome of Dheere’s visit to the Horn of Africa’s top military power and Washington’s key regional ally in its “war on terrorism.”

Somalia’s big, nominally Christian-led neighbour, is wary of overt Islamist influence in the region.

In another development, Yusuf imposed an “emergency curfew” in Baidoa, seat of his almost powerless government, after clashes between his guards and local clan militia flared two days ago killing at least six people.

He also ordered clan fighters to leave Baidoa and take their weapons to camps outside the provincial town, where the government has been based since February.

Anyone breaking the emergency curfew from 9:00pm (1800 GMT) to 5:00am (0200 GMT) risked one-three months in jail and a $100-$200 fine, a statement by the information ministry said.

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