MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somali government troops backed by Ethiopian soldiers battled about 600 Islamic militiamen Thursday on the southern tip of this Horn of Africa nation, and U.S. Navy forces prevented the militants from fleeing by sea, authorities said.
A U.S. diplomat said she hoped peacekeepers from the region could be in place by month’s end in Somalia, where the Council of Islamic Courts militias were driven from the capital of Mogadishu and much of the south last week. But peacekeepers could face bloody reprisals from the militias, who want to rule by the Quran and have vowed to launch an Iraqi-style guerrilla war.
Somalia hasn’t had an effective central government in 15 years, and Mogadishu resident Musse Ali said foreigners will also have to protect themselves from warlords and freelance militiamen.
“The peacekeepers will be targets for terrorists,” said Ali, 41. “They will have to face them.”
Somalia’s interior minister said thousands of Islamic fighters were still hiding in the capital.
“There are 3,500 Islamists hiding in Mogadishu and in the surrounding areas, and they are likely to destabilize the security of the city,” Hussein Aideed said.
The battle between the estimated 600 militiamen and the Ethiopian and Somali troops took place far to the southwest near the border with Kenya.
Kenya has closed its border, fearing militants would slip across the frontier. That has prevented thousands of Somali refugees from seeking safety in Kenya, according to the U.N.