Ethiopian Army Moves on Somali Islamist Group

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The Ethiopian army is moving in on a stronghold of the Islamic Courts Union, three days after it forced the militant Islamist group out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. In Somalia, thousands of people fled as the Ethiopian army moved in on a key stronghold of the Islamic Courts Union. That's the militant Islamic group that until recently had ruled much of Somalia. The Ethiopians chased the ICU out of the capital, Mogadishu, three days ago, and an interim government has now taken over. NPR's Gwen Thompkins joins us from Mogadishu.

Gwen, we've heard that Mogadishu is still divided between those loyal to the interim government and those siding with the Islamic Courts Union. What's the mood there. What do you see?

GWEN THOMPKINS: Well, the mood here appears to be very, very cautious. People in Mogadishu have seen leadership come and go many, many times over the years, from former President Siad Barre, who left office back in the early 1990s; until now there have been at least five different administrations, whether they be unofficial, for instance war lords who took over the town, or the Islamic Courts Union, who are the latest authority to come and take over the city. Now it's the transitional government. People will tell you on the streets that they are very happy that the transitional government is here, but these are the same people who would have told you that they were very happy that the Islamic Courts Union was here or that the warlords were here or that Siad Barre was here, because these seem to be people who are very accustomed to changes in leadership that they have no control over. And so they're determined to survive.

SEABROOK: We understand that forces loyal to the Islamic Courts Union are around the town of Kismaayo. Are they planning to make a last stand against the Ethiopian troops who are about 75 miles away now?

THOMPKINS: Well, the reports that I'm hearing today suggest that the remnants of the Islamic Courts Union, those fighters who are still loyal to the Courts, who are still true believers per se, that they have split into two groups in the Kismaayo/Jilib region. This is south of Mogadishu, actually nearer to the Kenyan border. And one group is just trying to get out. They're making arrangements. They're going to try to head over the border into Kenya or into Godace(ph) or do what they can to just get out of Somalia. And the other group has said that they are willing to stand and fight.

The transitional government and, of course, the Ethiopian forces are taking them quite seriously. Their combined forces have already left this Mogadishu area and are headed to Kismaayo and Jilib, into the lower Jubba Valley region in order to confront those who want to be confronted. But at this point it's very unclear what's going to happen because the Islamic Courts Union said that they were going to stand and fight in Mogadishu. And yet they disappeared into the night on Thursday night. So no one is really clear about what's going to happen or even why the Islamic Courts would want to fight at this point.

SEABROOK: Gwen, where are you and what are you seeing?

THOMPKINS: I'm in the western part of Mogadishu, not far from the ocean. I can't see it from here, but I can feel it. I have been to areas around this hotel in western Mogadishu, as well as in central parts of the city. And it is really, you now can tell that this was once quite a beautiful place, but right now it looks like what someone has called, it's a modern day ruin where there's sort of a thick layer of dust over everything. When you go underneath the dust in Mogadishu, what you find are bombed-out buildings, bullet holes in buildings from conflicts 20 years ago.

SEABROOK: NPR's Gwen Thompkins in Mogadishu, Somalia. Thanks, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Andrea

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