Taliban for Somalia?

A militia led by fundamentalist clerics challenges the lawless rule of warlords who have been tearing the country apart for the past generation. The warlords, meanwhile, band together in an “anti-terrorist” alliance in an obvious bid for support from the West. Does this sound familiar? From Reuters, March 26:

MOGADISHU, Somalia – Fighting in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu subsided Sunday and residents said militia linked to Islamic courts had taken an upper hand after four days of fierce exchanges of fire that killed at least 70 people.

Residents said the group had taken control of the area surrounding the Elmaan port and pushed rival militia loyal to a new “anti-terror” alliance of warlords from the area.

“The warlords have been pushed away from their stronghold, it looks like the Islamists have won the battle,” said Ali Abdi, a resident of Mogadishu who managed to visit the battleground on Saturday to collect the body of his relative.

But a spokesman for the newly-formed political group, the Mogadishu Anti-Terrorism Coalition, which comprises many of the city’s warlords opposed to the growing influence of the Islamic courts, denied that his group had been defeated.

“Since there was heavy crossfire within the Elmaan port, we decided to halt the fighting in order to open up the port,” the spokesman, Hussein Gutale, told Reuters.

The clashes, which began on Wednesday, have killed between 70 and 90 people according to witnesses and hospital sources, most of them militias, but also civilians caught in the battle, including women and children.

Dahir Mohamed, the head of the medical department at Madina hospital said the hospital had received 98 people since the fighting started with chest, head and abdomen bullet wounds.

Most of the victims were heavily bandaged.

“I was shot on the first day of fighting,” 25-year-old Abukar Hassan told Reuters. “Nobody asked me to participate in the fighting, I took my own gun and went to fight the traitors.”

He fought on the side of the Islamic courts.

Residents said the northern part of Mogadishu remained dangerous although vehicles had started to move into the area. Hundreds of Somalis have fled the capital and businesses have closed during the latest flare-up.

In what Somalis say is the worst fighting in their lawless Horn of Africa country for years, 37 people also died in clashes between the two sides last month.

Warlords have dominated the nation of 10 million since the ousting of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

In the 14th attempt to restore normal government to Somalia, an interim administration set up in Kenya returned last year but has been unable to impose authority. It remains based in Jowhar, outside the capital, because of security fears.

See our last post on Somalia.