MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Tuesday its troops will stay for another few weeks in Somalia to help the government pacify the Horn of Africa nation, but the Islamists they ousted in a brief war vowed to “rise from the ashes”.
The Islamists, who fled their last stronghold on Monday after a two-week conflict, said they refused a government offer to surrender and reports of a deadly ambush against Ethiopian forces showed the fighting may be far from over.
A day after Ethiopian troops rolled into the southern town, a resident in Jilib said a Somali gunman shot dead two of their soldiers in the area on Tuesday.
He said Ethiopian forces killed the attacker and, later, two other Somalis. A Somali government source confirmed the ambush but said only one Ethiopian soldier had been killed.
The Islamists did not claim direct responsibility but said such attacks represented a change of tactics.
Analysts say the Islamists, joined by some foreign fighters, may launch an Iraqi-style insurgency against a government they see as propped up by a hated and Christian-led power.
Ethiopian planes, tanks and troops helped the Somali government drive the Islamists from Mogadishu last week, after breaking free from its provincial outpost Baidoa to end six months of Islamist rule across much of southern Somalia.
“If the world thinks we are dead, they should know we are alive. We will rise from the ashes,” Islamist spokesman Abdirahim Ali Mudey told Reuters by phone from a hideout.
“The attack is what we have been promising, as a change of tactic in the fight against the Ethiopians,” Mudey said. “We are scattered all over, our troops are almost everywhere.”
In Addis Ababa, a triumphant Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — who lauded his troops for turning the war against the Islamists — said his forces would only stay “for a few weeks” while the government pacifies the chaotic nation.
“It is up to the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force in Somalia without delay to avoid a vacuum and the resurgence of extremists and terrorists,” Meles said.
In Mogadishu — where the interim government set up gun collection points at the start of a drive to disarm one of the world’s most dangerous cities — Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said Ethiopian troops may in fact stay for months.
“The Ethiopians will leave when they clear terrorists and pacify Somalia. It will be ... weeks and months, not more.”
The Somali government has called for an African peacekeeping mission — endorsed by the United Nations before the war — to be deployed as soon as possible.
Uganda has provisionally offered a battalion but said on Tuesday it was unwilling to deploy unless its mission and exit strategy were clearly defined. Nigeria may also help.
Gedi said Eritrean, Ethiopian rebels and Arab fighters had been taken prisoner during the clashes in “a clear sign foreign fighters are involved”.
The government has offered an amnesty to Somali fighters — some of whom it says have been in touch — but insists captured foreigners will face the courts.
It has told Mogadishu residents to hand over their weapons by Thursday or be forcibly disarmed. “There will be no sacred cows,” said Information Minister Ali Jama “Jangali”.
Gedi, who added that Somalia had re-opened its airspace, said many had flocked to collection points, but at one seen by Reuters, not a single gun had been handed in. Traders said gun prices had gone up and some were still buying weapons.
The interim government’s legitimacy hinges on installing itself in the capital and restoring central rule for the first time since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The task is complicated by the return of warlords hoping to restore fiefdoms they ran before the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) — which pacified Mogadishu by enforcing sharia, Islamic law — chased them out.
Despite a U.N. arms embargo, the war-scarred capital on the Indian Ocean is one of the world’s most gun-infested cities.
After fleeing their last stronghold in the southern port of Kismayu on Monday in the face of an Ethiopian bombardment, Islamist fighters and leaders have moved further south.
Residents say some have re-grouped in the hilly Buur Gaabo region, just on the Somali side of the border.
Tightening the net, neighboring Kenya said it had closed its long and porous northeastern border and hosted Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf for talks. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki appealed to the parties to “embrace dialogue”.
U.S. warships were patrolling off Somalia to stop SICC leaders or foreign militant supporters escaping, diplomats said.
Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Mogadishu; Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa; George Obulutsa, Nico Gnecchi, David Mageria, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi