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Islamists Take Over Ethiopian Bases in Mogadishu

In Somalia, Islamist fighters loyal to the Islamic Courts Union have taken control of several bases vacated by Ethiopian troops in the Somali capital. Mogadishu remains tense amid fears that militant al-Shabab fighters could launch attacks against moderate Islamists and African Union peacekeepers for control of the city.

Residents in the capital, Mogadishu, say the Islamic Courts Union militia have tightened security and are now in charge of most positions in the city.

The ICU took over six bases on Thursday, as Ethiopia pulled the last of its forces out of the capital and ended its two year-long mission to protect the country's weak transitional federal government. The ICU was thrown out of power by Ethiopia in late 2006.

Government troops are reportedly in charge of two former Ethiopian bases in the southern end of the capital and some 3,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi are guarding the presidential palace, the city's airport and the seaport.

But Mogadishu remains far from settled, following threats by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab to continue their attacks on the African Union mission known as AMISOM. Al-Shabab's spokesman Muktar Robow says his group sees no difference between Ethiopian troops and AMISOM peacekeepers.

Robow says al-Shabab fighters will now concentrate their attacks on peacekeepers unless AMISOM agrees to leave Somalia immediately.

AMISOM spokesman, Ugandan army Major Barigye Ba-Hoku dismissed the threat, saying al-Shabab is trying to spoil an opportunity for Somalis to end the insurgency and achieve stability.

"Muktar Robow said that they are not interested in peace," he said. "They are going to continue fighting. Whom are they going to fight? Because, all along, the argument has been, 'We are fighting an occupation of force from Ethiopia.' AMISOM is not in any way, and will never be in any way, an occupation force."

It is not known if the ICU militia in Mogadishu includes members of al-Shabab. The radical group, which has vowed to turn Somalia into a strict Islamic state, functioned as the military wing of the ICU before it split off in 2007. Al-Shabab and ICU fighters often fought side-by-side in the past two years. But they have recently emerged as rivals.

With Ethiopians out of the capital, there have been indications that many Islamist insurgents, clerics, and residents want an end to the conflict, which has killed some 16,000 civilians and has left one-third of the country's population in need of food aid.

Some clerics have publicly criticized al-Shabab's militant stance on AMISOM, highlighting a widening rift between moderate and hard-line Islamists on the way forward.

Many moderates are leaning toward supporting a Djibouti-based Islamist opposition faction called the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia. The political alliance, led by former ICU leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, was initially criticized for signing a U.N.-sponsored peace accord with the Ethiopia-backed government. Many Somalis did not believe Ethiopia would follow through on its promise to withdraw and allow a joint force of Islamist fighters and government troops to take over security.

But Al-Shabab and another hard-line Somali Islamist group, based in Asmara, Eritrea, have refused to participate in the peace process, prompting fears that a prolonged power struggle within the Islamist movement is yet to come.