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Somalis Flee Key Warlord-held Port Amid Fears Of Fighting
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KISMAYO, Somalia, September 15, 2006 -- Militiamen allied to Somalia's government took up defensive positions in a strategic port town early Friday after a key leader in the rival Islamic group arrived for talks on the town's future.

A small group of gunmen loyal to the Islamic movement entered Kismayo, 420 kilometers southwest of the capital Mogadishu, on Thursday without meeting any resistance, residents said, but possibly setting the stage for a confrontation with local gunmen.

A warlord in the Juba Valley Alliance, which controls Kismayo, sent his forces to a strategic base in the middle of the town. Troops belonging to the alliance chief, Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire, who is the defense minister in the almost powerless transitional government, gathered at the airport outside of Kismayo.

Asked for comment on the arrival of Islamic gunmen, Shire said: "Wait until I finish this whole business."

The courts have additional fighters waiting outside of town, where residents said tensions are running high.

The Islamic fighters who seized the capital and much of southern Somalia in June have imposed strict religious rule in its territory. Somalia's official government exercises little authority, while the Islamic group is credited with bringing a semblance of order to the country after years of anarchy. But some of the Islamic leaders have been linked to al-Qaida and there are fears of an emerging, Taliban-style regime.

Fears of fighting in Kismayo have sparked an exodus to neighboring Kenya with 300, mainly women and children, arriving each day, the U.N.'s refugee agency said Friday.

Somalis are also fleeing the capital to avoid recruitment by warlords or the Islamic group, and Baidoa, seat of the government, fearing fighting. Kenya had already received 22,000 Somali refugees since the beginning of the year.

The competition for control of Kismayo appeared to based on differences within its dominant Ayr clan over how the town should be governed and how revenues from the port should be divided.

Mohamed Roble Jumale, a member of the alliance that controls Kismayo and who also helped the Islamic courts defeat U.S.-backed warlords in Mogadishu, drove into Kismayo late Thursday with a handful of bodyguards and was expected to begin talks with other alliance leaders Friday.

On Thursday, the Islamic leaders insisted they weren't sending troops to the town, but said they would assist the resident of Kismayo if they asked for the Islamic courts' assistance.

Jumale has been a key leader in the courts' militia and a faction leader within the Juba Valley Alliance, a loosely organized and shifting group made up of four warlords who control Kismayo port and the surrounding area.

He may be using his current influence within the Islamic courts to extend his power base in the Juba region, said Somali officials.

In Brussels Friday, the European Union cautioned against foreign interference in Somalia, in an apparent message to Ethiopia and Eritrea who have both been accused of sending troops into the territory of their unstable neighbor.

The E.U. offered its support to talks between Somalia's weak government and the Islamic group.

Ethiopia has threatened to "crush" the Islamic fighters if they seek to overthrow the Somali government and has reportedly sent troops to three Somali towns. The Somali government has accused Ethiopia's regional rival Eritrea of sending in troops at the invitation of the Islamic group.

Source: AP

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