MOGADISHU , November 13, 2008 (AFP) Somalia 's Islamist and pro-government forces were on collision course again Thursday, as police vowed to send troops to wrest back control of several towns from fast-advancing Shebab fighters.
A day after capturing the key port of Merka, only 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, the Shebab imposed Sharia law on the town but national police spokesman Abdillahi Hassan said the government would fight back.
"We will be sending government forces to the region to liberate it from the violent people who want to derail the peace pact that has been signed by the government and the opposition alliance," he told reporters.
The Shebab fighters took control of the town unopposed on Wednesday and were welcomed by many residents who had grown weary of the disorder and corruption that prevailed under the rule of local clan militias.
"Our aim is to implement Islamic Sharia in the region and everybody should know that we are equal," Shebab commander Mohamed Sheikh Abdi Muse told a crowd of residents, ordering all businesses shut during prayers.
"No one will be more important than the other and people should respect each other by obeying the orders of Allah," he said.
The Shebab is the resurgent military and youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which briefly ruled most of the country before being ousted in 2006 by Ethiopian troops who rescued an embattled transitional government.
The group has made significant military gains in recent months and now controls most of southern and central Somalia , some parts of Mogadishu and the parliamentary town of Baidoa excepted.
On Thursday, Ethiopian forces moved to secure the main road south of Mogadishu after Islamist fighters took a town, set up camp in a second and briefly occupied a third, witnesses said.
Eyewitness Adow Sheikh Amin said heavily-armed Ethiopian soldiers on 14 trucks stopped vehicles on the road leading to Afgoye township, 18 kilometers (11 miles) only south of Mogadishu .
"The displaced people are very worried about the situation because they cannot live around those areas where Islamists arrived last night," said Mohamed Moalim Alin, a resident of Elashabiyaha.
Residents said Ethiopian troops had beefed up their deployment in the region and added that they expected clashes to break out.
Ethiopia has scaled down its military operations in Somalia in recent months, keeping an estimated 2,500 troops mainly tasked with protecting Mogadishu .
The latest Shebab gains have further complicated plans formulated during the latest round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Djibouti to launch joint security operations bringing together government and so-called moderate Islamists.
A branch of the ICU is now engaged in the UN-sponsored Djibouti peace process and has committed itself to joint security efforts with the transitional government.
But the Shebab and allied hardliners have insisted that they will only enter negotiations once all Ethiopian troops have withdrawn from the country.
Source: AFP, Nov 13, 2008