Civil war fear as Somali chief seizes town

Mogadishu (AFP) - The Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed has vastly extended his power base with the capture of Baidoa at the weekend, and observers predicted yesterday he would move on to the southern port city of Kismayo, raising the prospect of renewed civil war.

As his 600-strong militia force celebrated Sunday's victory in Baidoa, General Aideed's main rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, threatened to declare "all-out war". He gave General Aideed 24 hours to withdraw his forces from the inland town and warned him that he would be responsible for the ensuing "catastrophe" if he tried to extend his control beyond southern Mogadishu.

Details of the Aideed onslaught on Baidoa were flimsy, as his militiamen ripped out radio equipment. However, 17 expatriate aid workers seized in the offensive were said to be safe. The General's men were also said to be holding a number of Somali aid workers.

According to relief workers in Nairobi, the general led a column which included 30 "technicals" - pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons - from his south Mogadishu stronghold to Baidoa, some 150 miles away, in the middle of the night.

The militiamen then blew up an ammunition dump at Baidoa airport before attacking the town, ruled by feuding sub-clans. Resistance crumbled fast as General Aideed's men opened up with heavy machine-guns, anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, the sources said. Travellers arriving in Mogadishu from Baidoa said at least 10 people were killed or wounded.

Baidoa, devastated by the 1992 famine, was reported calm yesterday as General Aideed's men set up checkpoints. Aid workers based in the town say rival militiamen have clashed on a number of occasions recently, but it was generally regarded as relatively peaceful.

The town's clan elders agreed in March to institute sharia (Islamic law) there. General Aideed, proclaimed "interim president" by his supporters in June, has not instituted sharia in any territory he controls.

Kismayo, his likely next target, is ruled by General Mohamed Said Hersi Morgan, known as "the butcher of Hargeisa" for his merciless pounding of that northern town.