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ICC NOTE: Pray for Somalia and Somali Christians who are at the mercy of a growing conflict and the ICU who is adamant about maintaining its presence in Somalia .

Islamic leader vows to stay in Somalia

Associated Press Writer

Fri Dec 29

AFGOYE, Somalia – The U.N.-backed Somali government on Friday moved swiftly to assert authority over the capital city Islamic fighters abandoned the day before, though the leader of the insurgents vowed they would continue to fight.

Somalia ‘s prime minister was preparing to enter the capital, Mogadishu , which Islamic forces held for six months before a string of defeats in the last 10 days to government troops backed by Ethiopian soldiers and jets.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the executive leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, told The Associated Press Friday that his fighters would not be pushed out of Somalia .

“We will not run away from our enemies. We will never depart from Somalia . We will stay in our homeland,” he said from the southern coastal port of Kismayo , where his forces retreated from Mogadishu .

Until now, Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi has ruled from Baidoa, the single Somali town the government held before Ethiopian troops came to its aid, spearheading the rout of the Islamist militias that threatened to take control of the country less than two weeks ago.

“Now the difficult task of rebuilding the country begins,” Gedi told an AP reporter who was traveling with him. “We want to restore law and order.”

Gedi said he is ready to bring peace to the nation.

“I want to disarm the entire country’s general population,” he said. “Our people are sick of civil war and instability.”

Gedi himself was not yet in the capital, rather 18 miles to the west in Afgoye. He was expected to travel to Mogadishu later Friday for a visit meant to symbolize the government’s victory.

Advance groups of heavily armed Ethiopian and government troops began visiting key installations in the capital early Friday, including the airport and seaport.

Even before the rise of the Islamists — who tried to establish a government based on a strict interpretation of the Quran — Gedi’s government was kept out of Mogadishu by clan violence. There was an attempt on his life during a rare trip to the city in November 2005.

Somalia ‘s parliament is expected to vote on Saturday to impose three months of martial law on the country in a bid to silence the guns. The government has already appealed over the radio for police officers to return to work.

The Islamic movement took control of Mogadishu six months ago and then advanced across most of southern Somalia , often without fighting. Then Ethiopian troops and fighter aircraft went on the attack in support of the government last week.

Before the Islamists established control, Mogadishu had been ruled by competing clans who came together to support the Islamic fighters. Now the clans could return to fighting one another and may reject the government’s authority.

Somalia ‘s clans have been the basis of politics and identity here for centuries. The country has not had an effective national government since 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on one another. Since then clan rivalries have been the undoing of at least 14 attempts to install a central government.

In another challenge for the government, many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are wary of the alliance with neighboring Ethiopia , a largely Christian country that has feared the emergence of a neighboring Islamic state.

Its soldiers provided much of the muscle in the offensive that shattered what had seemed an unbeatable Islamic militia. Somalis hurled rocks Thursday at Ethiopian troops on the northern edge of Mogadishu , where they refrained from entering the city. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977.

The African Union and the Arab League have called for Ethiopian and all foreign troops to immediately leave Somalia .

However, Ethiopia ‘s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi vowed not to give up the fight until extremists and foreign fighters supporting the Islamic movement had been crushed, predicting it would take a few weeks longer.

The Red Cross reported 850 people injured at hospitals supported by the relief agency in Mogadishu and Baidoa, but had no figure for fatalities.

Speaking in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa , he added that between 2,000 and 3,000 Islamic militia had been killed and 4,000 to 5,000 wounded.

Ethiopia suffered a few hundred casualties, Meles told reporters.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, who is in Baidoa, the temporary capital of the Somali government located about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu, said the situation was “stable and very promising.” Three Ethiopian military helicopters sat on the runway of Baidoa airport.

The transitional government gave a green light Thursday for the immediate resumption of U.N. humanitarian flights. Fighting forced the U.N. to evacuate its international staff and halt assistance to 2 million people in the south and central regions affected by the conflict and recent floods.

A chilling reminder of the chaos Somalia has known came as armed militiamen began looting almost anything they could after the Islamic forces left. At least four people were killed in the melee, said witness Abdullahi Adow.

Gunfire could be heard for most of the day Thursday in the city. The Islamic forces, who had threatened to defend Mogadishu to the last man, retreated toward the southern port of Kismayo . Two Ethiopian fighter jets buzzed the coastal city early Friday.