Somalia's prime minister reaches capital

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The Independent Online

The Somali prime minister promised thousands of war-weary citizens peace and stability yesterday after he drove through battle-scarred Mogadishu in an armed convoy, a day after an Islamic movement's fighters abandoned the capital.

"Today is the beginning of a new life, new stabilization and a new future for Somalia," Ali Mohamed Gedi said.

As a sign of goodwill, Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf and the Ethiopian government declared a 24-hour cease-fire to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on Saturday.

But with violent protests in one neighborhood in support of the Islamic fighters who had vowed to establish a government based on the Quran, and the movement's leader promising to fight on from a key southern town, the task facing the UN-backed secular government is immense.

While Gedi's entrance was meant to symbolize the government's victory, fighting was likely to continue, although a glimmer of hope was offered after key Islamic officials traveled to Kenya, where the government is hoping to foster peace talks.

But Gedi ruled out the possibility of fresh peace talks with the Islamic movement. "We cannot talk peace after all this bloodshed," he told The Associated Press.

Even before the rise of the Islamists, Gedi's government had been kept out of Mogadishu by clan violence. There was an attempt on his life during a rare trip to the city in November, 2005.

On Friday, though, he was embraced. Waving a Somalia flag and cheering, Sahra Yusuf joined the thousands, buffeted by a cooling ocean breeze, who lined the streets to welcome the prime minister. Many Somalis climbed on to buildings to catch a glimpse of their new leader.

"This is an historic day for us," said Yusuf, a mother of three who was dressed in traditional white cloth. "This is a sign that Somalia will be able to stand on its own feet."

Amid tight security with marksmen on roof tops, Gedi was more realistic, appealing for help to rebuild a country ruined by 15 years of civil war and infighting. He also called for peacekeepers to help ensure further violence does not erupt.

Martial law was expected to be imposed across the country by parliament tomorrow.

Earlier, Ethiopian troops aboard tanks fired warning shots into the air after dozens of young men threw stones as the convoy traveled through the city, on the way to secure the airport.

Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government's reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of Africa's largest armies. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977.

Yusuf said Ethiopian troops would stay in Somalia as "the government is not up to the level of taking back the entire country overnight." He vowed to pursue those still willing to fight for the Islamic group.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the executive leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement, was defiant in comments to The Associated Press yesterday.

"We will not run away from our enemies. We will never depart from Somalia. We will stay in our homeland," he said from the southern coastal port of Kismayo, where his forces retreated from Mogadishu.

Hundreds of foreign fighters, mainly Arabs and southern Asians and some wounded, were seen in Kismayo Friday. Some of the Islamic movement's members espouse an extreme form of Islam, and the United States accuses it of harboring al-Qaida terrorists.

Somalia's president vowed to take the fight to Kismayo.

"We are going to go there and confront them," Abdullahi Yusuf told reporters. "If we capture them we will bring them to justice."

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has also vowed not to give up the fight until extremists and foreign fighters supporting the Islamic movement had been crushed, predicting it would take a few weeks longer.

Ethiopian jets yesterday buzzed the frontline town of Jilib, 65 miles north of Kismayo and at a crucial junction of rivers and roads that lead to Kismayo.

Until now, the government has tried to rule from Baidoa, the only town it held before Ethiopian troops came to its aid less than two weeks ago.

Before the Islamists established control, Mogadishu had been ruled by competing clans who came together to support the Islamic fighters. Now, the clans could return to fighting one another and may reject the government's authority.

Somalia's clans have been the basis of politics and identity here for centuries. But due to clan fighting, the country has not had an effective government since 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on one another.

Somalia's complex clan politics have been the undoing of at least 14 attempts to install a government in this violent, anarchic nation. Gedi's government is riddled with clan rivalries, most notably between the young prime minister and elderly President Abdullahi Yusuf.

The US State Department, in a statement issued in Washington yesterday, called for "genuine national reconciliation" in Somalia and reiterated support for an African peacekeeping force to be deployed in the country.

The UN said Friday it will resume humanitarian food aid flights to the country this weekend. Fighting forced the UN to evacuate its international staff and halt assistance to 2 million people affected by the conflict and recent floods.

The African Union and the Arab League have called for Ethiopian and all foreign troops to immediately leave Somalia.

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