Somalia's interim governments says it has captured the Islamic Movement's last stronghold, following a night of intense Ethiopian artillery bombardment near Kismayo. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports hard-line Somali Islamist leaders and their fighters abandoned their last stronghold early Monday, possibly retreating to a base near the Kenyan border.
Witnesses in the southern port of Kismayo say several thousand Islamist fighters simply disappeared Monday, after Ethiopian artillery pounded their front-line positions the night before in the town of Jilib, 45 kilometers to the north.
Senior Islamist leaders, including the radical head of the Islamic Courts Union Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, had retreated to Jilib from Mogadishu last Thursday, after advancing Ethiopian and Somali government troops forced them to abandon the capital they had held since June.
Kismayo-based Somali journalist Nasteex Dahir Farah tells VOA that the port city has descended into chaos, with gunmen roaming the streets and looting unguarded Islamist weapon depots.
"Kismayo today is tense," said Farah. "You can see people looting landmines, rockets, machine guns. Hundreds of families are fleeing to the Kenya border."
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Islamists, who had controlled the capital and large parts of southern Somalia with a powerful militia, seemed unstoppable in their quest to unite the country under strict Islamic laws and to destroy its rival, Somalia's internationally recognized-but-weak secular interim government, headquartered in the town of Baidoa.
The Islamists said that their aim was to restore law and order in Somalia, which has lacked a functioning government for more than 15 years. But neighboring Ethiopia and the United States accused some senior Islamist leaders of seeking to form an East African cell of the al-Qaida terrorist network and creating regional instability by accepting military support from Ethiopia's main rival in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea.
Ten days ago, Ethiopia, with tacit approval from the United States, intervened in the Somali conflict, providing massive firepower to cover advancing government troops and forcing outgunned Islamists to retreat and disband.
Somali Journalist Nasteex Dahir Farah says the two top Islamic Courts Union leaders, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, were seen leaving Kismayo Monday morning, heading toward the Kenyan border 160 kilometers to the south.
Aweys has long been on a U.S. list of wanted terrorists. Near the border, there is an Islamist base on a small peninsula called Ras Kamboni, used by Somali radicals to train many of their fighters.
"What we know is that Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys fled this morning to the border of Somalia and Kenya," added Farah. "They say they will make hit-and-run attacks. So, people are pretty scared."
Islamist leaders have said that their retreat is a tactical move and vowed to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war against Ethiopia and the interim government.