June 4, 2006

Islamic militia capture key Somalia town, 9 killed

By Mohamed Ali Bile

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Islamic court militia seized a
strategic town outside Mogadishu on Sunday, dislodging a member
of the anti-terrorism warlord coalition in fierce fighting that
left nine people dead, officials and residents said.

The town of Balad, 30 km (19 miles) north of Mogadishu,
fell to the Islamic courts after two hours of intense battle.

"Balad is in our hands. The enemy has escaped from the
town," said Islamic courts militia leader Moallim Hashi
Mohamed, whose forces have been fighting those of warlord Muse
Sudi Yalahow.

There was no immediate comment from Muse Sudi side, but
witnesses reported seeing his forces heading toward Jowhar

Residents who emerged after the clash counted bodies.

"I saw seven bodies lying on the ground inside the town,"
said one resident. Another said he saw two bodies at a check
point outside Balad.

The small town is strategic because it lies on the route
connecting the capital to the fertile agriculture areas of
Middle Shabelle and Lower Shabelle.

Residents said capturing Balad was the biggest victory for
the Islamic courts since the start of the war between fighters
loyal to clerics advocating strict sharia law and warlords who
formed an anti-terror coalition many believe is funded by the
United States.

Hundreds of people have died in a series of battles since
the start of the year. Some Mogadishu residents say the
violence is the worst they have seen in Somalia's troubled

Washington has not commented on accusations it backed the
warlords except to say it welcomed support in its declared war
on terrorism.

Officials, meanwhile, said international and local aid
workers based outside Mogadishu were leaving Somalia over fears
the fighting would spread to other regions.

Islamic forces have now taken over the villages of El
Iffid, Ali Yaale, Garas Bintow and a military camp of
Hiilweyne, 7 km (4 miles) outside Balad town, witnesses said.

Residents said National Security Minister Mohamed Qanyare
and his heavily armed forces left their base in Daynile in
Mogadishu on Saturday night.

They were believed to have moved toward Balad to offer
support to Muse Sudi, who is also the commerce minister in
Somalia's transitional government.

Residents say the latest fighting has involved some of the
worst violence ever seen in Mogadishu.