Last US-backed warlord surrenders to Somali Islamists

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The last Somali warlord left fighting Islamists in Mogadishu surrendered yesterday after two days of battles that killed more than 140 people.

Abdi Awale Qaybdiid is believed to have fled after scores of his troops handed over their weapons. "It has become necessary to surrender and give peace a chance," a militiaman loyal to Qaybdiid said.

He was the last of an alliance of warlords backed by the United States which claimed to have formed an anti-terrorism coalition. The group had been fighting the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a group of Islamists which wants to bring sharia law to the whole of Somalia - a country that has been lawless and leaderless since 1991.

The US claimed that the UIC was harbouring suspected al-Qa'ida terrorists. In an effort to prevent Somalia becoming a "safe haven" for al-Qa'ida, the US gave support to the very same warlords that had driven American troops out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 US Army Rangers were killed in an incident later made into a Hollywood film.

The Islamists seized most of Mogadishu after heavy fighting in June. Qaybdiid was the only warlord to continue to hold out.

The moderate Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, said that the latest victory would bring stability to Somalia's capital. "From today onwards, we promise the world that this city is safe," Sheikh Ahmed said. "We need to overcome tribalism and the Somali enemies. There are so many enemies and in order to defend ourselves against them we need to unite."

The Islamists ambushed Qaybdiid's fighters and those loyal to the Interior Minister, Hussein Aideed, a deputy prime minister in the weak interim government, on Sunday. The fighting, with heavy artillery, mortars and machine guns, killed at least 140 people, and hospital sources expected the toll to rise.

The latest fighting comes as the UIC and the transitional federal government prepare for peace talks in Sudan on Saturday. The federal government, based in the town of Baidoa 130 miles north-west of Mogadishu, has been unable to bring law and order to Somalia.

The Somali Prime Minister, Mohamed Ali Gedi, has called for international peacekeepers to come to Somalia to help the government restore a semblance of stability. But the Islamic Courts have said Somalia does not need any foreign troops, and has promised to attack any that are brought in. Tensions are already high in the region after the Islamic Courts accused Somalia's neighbour Ethiopia of sending troops over the border to help the government.

Already the effects of the Islamists' control in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia are apparent. While some residents claim security in the world's most dangerous city has improved and food prices have dropped, two people were last week murdered for watching the football World Cup and a Swedish cameraman, Martin Adler, was shot dead while reporting a protest in the capital. Sharia law has been introduced in places, while singing and dancing has been banned.

Moderates within the Islamic Courts stress they only wish to bring law and order to a country which has been in chaos for 15 years. But last month a radical Islamist who the US claims has links with terrorism was named as the new chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is accused of formerly heading an Islamist group with links to al-Qa'ida.

Regional analysts hold little hope for Saturday's peace talks. The Prime Minister has already vowed not to hold direct talks with the UIC, and has accused them of breaking a ceasefire agreement.