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Islamist Insurgents in Control of Somali Port City

Islamist insurgents have taken control of the port city of Kismayo in southern Somalia. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the city returned to calm on Saturday after three days of fighting that left more than 60 people dead, according to residents.

Kismayo, Somalia's second largest city, is a strategic port on the country's southern coast near the border with Kenya. It was the last town held by Somalia's Islamic Courts Union when Ethiopian troops backing the country's interim government retook control of southern and central Somalia in the last days of 2006.

Recently, a clan-based militia that supported the transitional government had been in charge of Kismayo. But after three days of fighting that began on Wednesday, al-Shabab, a hardline military faction of the Islamist movement, took control of the city on Friday, with the warlord formerly in control fleeing.

A politician from the former clan-based administration, who asked not be named out of fear for his safety, told VOA that over 60 people had died and hundreds were wounded. And the hospital has neither enough medicine nor enough nurses to respond to the casualties.

He said former administrators had been asked to stay indoors. The city has been calm since sunset on Friday and there have been no reports of people being attacked in their homes. But, he says, people do not know what will happen next.

Aweys Hassan, a local businessman, says the city is calm again, and commercial activity has resumed.

There are an uncountable number of dead and wounded in the hospital, he says. Although the fighting was a disaster, there has been a big change in the city, and people seem to be welcoming it. The Islamists have said they will impose Sharia law, breaking with the previous clan politics.

An al-Shabab leader, Sheikh Muktar Robow, also told reporters that the Islamists would implement Sharia law in Kismayo, as the Islamic Courts did in much of southern and central Somalia when the region was under their control in late 2006.

The fighting in Kismayo followed the signing of a U.N.-backed peace deal in Djibouti on Monday between the transitional government and a more moderate faction of the Islamist opposition. Al-Shabab, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, suspected of ties to al-Qaida, has rejected the deal, highlighting the divisions within the opposition and the scant chances of success for the ceasefire.

Islamist-led insurgents have been waging a growing Iraq-style insurgency against the government, and the Ethiopian troops backing it, since being ousted from control of Mogadishu. Thousands have died and over one million have been displaced by the fighting, which, along with drought and high inflation, has turned Somalia into what the U.N. has called Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

The fighting has been heaviest in Mogadishu. Until this week, Kismayo had been relatively peaceful. Eyes are now on the internationally-supported transitional federal government and their Ethiopian backers, who will have to decide whether to dispatch troops in an attempt to retake the port.