Islamist militias fighting American-backed warlords in Somalia were in control of the capital Mogadishu last night, as fighting started to spread to other parts of the country.
The development came after three months of fierce clashes in which hundreds have been killed and injured and thousands more forced to flee their homes.
Last night the warlords' militias had retreated from Mogadishu with Islamist forces in hot pursuit. The UN began pulling staff out of neighbouring areas in anticipation of the growing conflict. The Islamists' victory is an embarrassing setback for the US, which had been supporting the self-styled Alliance for Restoration of Police and Counter Terrorism.
Thirteen years after America's humiliating withdrawal from Somalia, the subject of the film Black Hawk Down, the US had been funding its former enemies under the rules of the post-9/11 global "war on terror". The policy had led to dissent within the US administration, and the comprehensive defeat of the warlords showed, said critics, that it was fundamentally flawed.
The gains made by Islamists, who want sharia law to be established throughout Somalia, will also have wider ramifications to the region. The US has claimed that Somalia has become al-Qa'ida's headquarters for the Horn of Africa, where attacks were planned on Western targets in neighbouring countries.
Some of the warlord forces were yesterday crossing the border into Kenya, which has its own problems with Muslim fundamentalism, leading to fears that the Somalian conflict may destabilise neighbouring countries.
The Islamist militias were consolidating their positions just outside the capital. They took over the town of Balad, 30 miles away, a strategic junction which controls the route to Jowhar, where the bulk of the warlord troops had fled.
Some warlords claimed that the forces were regrouping to launch a counter-attack and retake the capital. However, Commander Ali Nur, who has been acting as their spokesman simply said: "We have no immediate plans now. Most of our leaders appear to have fled from Mogadishu to Jowhar." The town was among those from where the UN pulled out its staff last night.
After fierce house-to-house fighting in the past few weeks in which Islamists have systematically smashed their way through enemy positions, the final takeover of the capital took place relatively quietly with the capture of Daynille, the last warlord stronghold in the city.
Daynille was the base of Mohamed Qanyare, supposedly one of the foremost recipients of US aid. He is said to have left Mogadishu two days ago after elders asked him to desist from the extensive use of mortars, rockets and artillery which had caused a huge number of civilian casualties.
The victorious Islamists announced their triumph in a radio broadcast. Ali Abdikadir, who lives in south Mogadishu, said: "They said they would work with residents to improve security in the capital. This is good news for us because the warlords were always taking part in battles. We are now looking forward to a life without fighting."
Another resident, Mohammad Asser, added: "The era of warlords in Somalia is over. This morning Mogadishu is under only one hand, the Islamic courts."
Others, however, were worried about the application of Muslim fundamentalist laws and regulations. Mogadishu resident Ibrahim Rashid said: "We all want peace, but do not want to see extreme laws being put into place here. We do not want where that will lead."
Somalia's supposed rulers, the Transitional Federal Government, cannot get into Mogadishu and have set up headquarters in internal exile, at the provincial town of Baidoa.
Its President, Abdullahi Yusuf, has bitterly complained that American support for the warlords was severely undermining his government's chances of gaining power.
Abdirahman Dinari, a spokesman for the interim government, said: "I hope the Islamic courts will realise the importance of the government and talk to us. We are ready to talk to them in order to prevent further suffering of the innocent Somalian people."
Comparisons have been made between Somalia and Afghanistan, with both countries experiencing the presence of warlords, Muslim fundamentalists, foreign interference and failed economies. Analysts were yesterday likening the triumph of the Islamists in Mogadishu to the Taliban takeover of the Afghan capital Kabul.
Somalia - a violent history
* October 1993: Five US Army Rangers are killed in a failed mission to capture Mohamed Aidid, a Somali warlord wanted by the UN
* February 1995: UN peacekeepers pull out of Somalia
* August 1996: Mohamed Aidid dies and is succeeded by his son Hussein Mohamed Aidid
* October 2000: President Abdulkassim Salat Hassan and Prime Minister Ali Khalif Gelayadh try to form government, but fighting breaks out in April
* October 2002: A ceasefire is signed
* December 2004: Agreement to set up parliament. Abdullahi Yusuf is elected President and Ali Mohammed Ghedi isPM
* November 2005: Ghedi blames assassination attempt on Islamist rivals
* March-May 2006: Hundreds die in fighting
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