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Somalia As Islamic State Worries Bush
But thousands of Mogadishu residents protested against the takeover and defeated warlords said they would fight back. Clan elders warned the Islamic side against more advances.
Fighters loyal to Sharia courts seized the lawless capital Monday from a self-styled anti-terrorism coalition of warlords widely believed to be backed by Washington.
President George W. Bush said he was watching the instability in Somalia carefully and wanted to make sure the country did not become a safe haven for al Qaeda.
"Obviously when there's instability anywhere in the world we're concerned. There is instability in Somalia," Bush said during a trip to Texas.
"First concern of course would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al Qaeda safe haven, doesn't become a place from which terrorists plot and plan. So we're watching very carefully developments there," he said.
Some 350 people, mostly civilians, have died since February in fighting for Mogadishu interspersed by tense lulls. The United Nations says about 1,500 civilians were wounded in the close-quarter battles using mortars and anti-aircraft guns.
It was the first time the warlords had been dislodged from Mogadishu since ousting former ruler Mohamed Siyad Barre in 1991.
"Until we get the Islamic state, we will continue with the Islamic struggle in Somalia," Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, chairman of Mogadishu Islamic courts, told a rally of hundreds.
"This is a long Islamic struggle and it will continue until the whole country comes under Sharia law," Fuad Ahmed, a militiaman loyal to the Islamic side, told Reuters. "We are ready to shed our blood in order for that struggle to succeed."
Supporters of the warlord coalition packed the shattered Benadir stadium in northern Mogadishu at a counter-rally.
"We have to continue fighting the terrorists in Mogadishu. We will remain in Mogadishu," warlord Bashir Raghe, who lost control of an airstrip and a port in March, told Reuters.
"The Islamic courts cannot dislodge us from here."
Warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow, who lost the strategic town of Balad on Sunday, was also at the rally.
Somalia's interim prime minister, Mohamed Ali Gedi, earlier congratulated the Islamic side on their victory over warlords who many Somalis believe tried to undermine the government.
"They were hurting reconciliation, stabilization and pacification of Somalia," Gedi told Radio France Internationale.
"All those forces who joined their efforts together were the pillars of the victory and the government has congratulated them," he said.
ISLAMIC SIDE PUSHES NORTH
The Islamic fighters advanced on Tuesday towards the warlord stronghold of Jowhar, about 90 km (56 miles) north of Mogadishu.
"Our forces are in the village of Qalimoy, 20 km south of Jowhar. We are just waiting for orders from our leaders to capture it," militia leader Siyad Mohamed, who is allied to the Islamic courts, told Reuters from Balad on the road to Jowhar.
Ali Nur, a warlord coalition militiaman, said clan elders threatened to mass militia against Islamic forces if they attacked Jowhar.
Nur said the Islamic side told the warlords to hand over weapons but their fighters were preparing an assault to regain lost Mogadishu strongholds, notably the Kilometer Four area.
But resident Fahran Gure said he did not expect violence.
"We feel there is a big change, peace is in the air, no gunshots can be heard. It is calm, businesses are fully operational. People are now moving freely everywhere."
Aid workers fear the violence may have exacerbated an existing humanitarian crisis in drought-hit Somalia. Some 400,000 displaced already live in squalid conditions across Somalia but scores had fled Mogadishu during fighting.
The United States has refused to discuss persistent reports it is covertly funneling $100,000 (54,000 pounds) a month to the warlords but has said it will work with anyone combating terrorism.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States had serious concerns about the presence of "foreign terrorists" in Somalia where he said al Qaeda was active.
"We also have an interest, as well as the rest of the world, in combating the presence of foreign terrorists in that Horn of Africa region," said McCormack.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Texas, Sue Pleming in Washington, Guled Mohamed in Nairobi)
Source: Reuters, June 6, 2006