Witnesses say 2 killed in Somalia gunbattle

Monday, January 29, 2007

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Gunmen attacked police in northern Mogadishu Sunday, leading to an hourlong battle that left two dead and further demonstrated the U.S.-backed government's feeble grip on power here, witnesses said.

A Somali government spokesman Sunday warned that Islamic fighters from the deposed Council of Islamic Courts were regrouping as Ethiopia prepares to withdraw, and the U.S.-backed transitional government lacked troops, training and weapons to deal with the threat.

Islamic fighters "are coming back to Mogadishu," said the spokesman, Abdirahman Dinari. "They're destabilizing sections of the city. They're killing innocent civilians. They're attacking police stations."

Sunday's battle started after gunmen attacked police in northern Mogadishu. It was not immediately clear who the victims were.

"The gunmen ran away after reinforcements arrived to help the police," said Ifah Ahmed Ali, who witnessed the attack.

Two police stations were hit a day earlier with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, wounding five people.

On Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told The Associated Press he would pull a third of his troops out of Somalia within the next two days. Meles spoke on the eve of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

The African Union has approved a plan to send about 8,000 peacekeepers for a six-month mission to Somalia that would eventually be taken over by the U.N. But no date has been given for arrival of the force.

In December, Ethiopian forces routed the Islamic Courts militia from their strongholds across southern Somalia and installed a U.N.-recognized government in the capital, Mogadishu. U.S. forces supported the campaign, training and supplying the Ethiopian army, mounting air raids on militia targets and stationing a U.S. Navy carrier battle group off the Somali coast.

Two U.S. military officers in Qatar last week predicted Somalia could succumb to chaos in four months if international peacekeepers don't quickly replace departing Ethiopian troops.

The officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information, said none of the 10 to 20 Council of Islamic Courts leaders or their al-Qaida allies are known to have been killed or captured in the recent fighting. The few-thousand-strong militia remains mostly intact inside Somalia, they said.

"They're probably just lying low," one officer said. "They're probably waiting for Ethiopia to leave."

Ethiopia says it can't afford to keep troops in Somalia. The U.S. military officers said there are reports the Ethiopian army is being debilitated by malaria.

Dinari predicted the Ethiopian pullout could be over in weeks. "They've already started crossing the border," he said. "Within weeks they will finalize their withdrawal."

But one of the U.S. military officers said the withdrawal would more likely take four to six months.

There are no plans to replace Ethiopian troops with U.S. forces, the U.S. officers said. "When Ethiopia pulls out, we'll reduce our presence there," one said.

The Somali government has been putting more soldiers on the streets this week as Ethiopian troops pull back. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Over the weekend, 23 people accused of supporting the Islamic courts arrived in Mogadishu after being arrested in Kenya. Dinari said Sunday that the wives of three "terrorists" were among them.

Ahmed Yacqub said he saw the prisoners get off a plane at Mogadishu International Airport. "They were blindfolded and shackled with chains on their feet and handcuffs behind their backs," he said.

Many Somalis resent the Ethiopian presence: the countries fought a war in 1977. But without Ethiopia's tanks and fighter jets, the Somali government could barely assert control outside one town and could not enter the capital, Mogadishu, which was ruled by the Council of Islamic Courts. The U.S. accused the group of having ties to al-Qaida.

AP writers Les Neuhaus from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Jim Krane in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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