By Mohamed Ali Bile
MOGADISHU – Islamist militia advanced on the Somali town of Baladwayne on Thursday, aiming to expand their control of southern Somalia and beginning to flank the weak interim government’s base in Baidoa, residents said.
e to find the militias, supported by local clerics, in control of a key bridge and a prison without any fighting. The town near the Ethiopian border has been under the control of a governor appointed by Somalia’s interim government.
“The courts arrived last night and took over the main bridge and central prison. They had been planning this takeover for some time using local clerics,” a resident, who gave his name as Farah, said.
“They are stationed at the bridge and at two important checkpoints in the town. There were more than 70 Islamic militia in those three points,” resident Dahbo Ali told Reuters.
The Islamists, linked to sharia courts, last week become a force to be reckoned with after they seized the capital from secular warlords after fighting that has killed 350 since February.
The interim government is Somalia’s 14th attempt to bring central government to a country where warlord-control has prevailed since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.
But it is based in Baidoa because it lacks the muscle to move to the capital that could involve a confrontation with the Islamists.
The Islamist capture of Baladwayne and on Wednesday the critical town of Jowhar gives them control of a sizeable swathe of southern Somalia stretching from Mogadishu at the coast almost to the Ethiopian border.
It also means they could strike at the government’s base in Baidoa from two directions.
It remained unclear how the Islamists would react to a government vote a day earlier to permit foreign peacekeepers in the country to help secure the government.
The Islamists had threatened that such a vote would mean an end to talks it has been holding with the government.
“I would advise the courts not to end the talks if they want to continue with the desire of the people, which is to attain peace. To reach that peace, the government and the courts need to talk,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
About 200 people in Baidoa demonstrated in favour of the peacekeepers vote, while several hundred protested against it at Mogadishu football stadium.
In Addis Ababa, the African Union Peace and Security Council held a special meeting over Somalia, and endorsed the peacekeepers and a travel ban and asset freeze against warlords, AU Special Representative to Somalia Mohamed Ali Faum said.
The east African regional peace body the Inter-governmental Authority on Development approved those measures at a meeting in Nairobi on Tuesday in an effort to bring the warlords into the peace process.
Islamist militia ran the warlords out of Jowhar, located 90 km (55 miles) north of the capital. They imposed sharia law, leaving little doubt about what many fear is their plan to create an Islamic state. — Reuter