Somalis loath to disarm

Only a handful turned in weapons by the time a 72-hour amnesty ended Thursday. Tension grips the capital.

The old Fiat truck is still smoldering more than 12 hours after a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into its radiator, setting its cargo of fuel alight and injuring three of the passengers.

"This wasn't political. It wasn't the Islamists. This was bandits," says a police officer standing on the sand road, a couple of miles north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

"There isn't much we can do," he adds. "We are simply outgunned."

For six months, the notoriously chaotic city was pacified by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Its leaders imposed Islamic law and succeeded in ending almost 16 years of Kalashnikov-fueled racketeering by freelance warlords.

But now, after a two-week preemptive offensive launched by troops from neighboring Ethiopia helped the weak, secular Somalian government force the Islamists to flee, the bandits are starting to return.

Earlier this week, the prime minister announced a 72-hour gun amnesty. Residents could give up their AK-47s, grenades, and "technical" battlewagons – pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns – or face the threat of seeing them taken by force.

Somalis reluctant to give up guns

But when the deadline came and went Thursday with only a handful of weapons turned in, the government was forced to back down. Mogadishu now has three months to disarm, according to the deputy prime minister.

It is a humiliating and potentially dangerous climbdown.

The truck was attacked at a checkpoint manned by warlords and now residents fear that the old extortionist roadblocks may be going up once again.

"If this is how they are going to govern, then heaven help us," says Abdullahi Ahmed Adam, sipping bitter coffee on a roadside stool.

A woman selling mangos opposite the Villa Baidoa, an old presidential palace designated as a gun collection site, says Ethiopian soldiers inside had collected only one weapon.

"It was only a Thompson," she says laughing at the pre-World War II machine gun which changes hands for only $10 in Mogadishu.

A city armed to the teeth

Mogadishu remains awash with weapons held by people too scared to give them up.

Most families keep one in the house to deter robbers. Businesses group together to employ armed guards. And most hotels have a dozen or more militiamen available to visiting dignitaries or journalists for $20 a day or less.

Hussein Aideed, deputy prime minister and minister for the interior, estimates there are $3 billion worth of guns in Somalia. He says the three-day amnesty was ill-conceived. Some businesses should be licensed to hold weapons legally, and the government needs to find a mechanism to disarm clan rivals simultaneously, he adds.

"But the prime minister is an academic, not a military man," Mr. Aideed says in his office at Villa Somalia, which will be the president's residence once it is safe for the president to come to Mogadishu. "The prime minister has good intentions, but Somalia is not like that."

While serving in the government, Aideed was one of the clan-based warlords who controlled a chunk of Mogadishu before losing ground to the Islamic militias this summer.

His father was the man that US Rangers were trying to capture during the disastrous "Black Hawk Down" episode, in which Somali mobs dragged bodies of dead US soldiers through the streets in 1993.

At the moment, he has 1,000 police officers for a city of 2.5 million people. He has appealed to some 3,000 former officers to return to work without pay and without guns.

His entire police arsenal comprises 326 AK-47s – a gift from Yemen to the Somali president for his personal bodyguard.

Aideed says that disarmament can only be imposed on the city if and when a regional peacekeeping force is deployed to support his police. There are diplomatic efforts to find countries willing to send forces to Somalia, but Aideed worries that help will not come soon enough.

"We have goodwill from the people to build security so we have to do it fast. If we don't then that goodwill will disappear." he says.

Mogadishu has been on edge for the past week since the Islamist militias vanished, many fleeing south toward the Kenyan border, others blending back into civilian life in Mogadishu. "There are 3,500 Islamists hiding in Mogadishu and the surrounding areas and they are likely to destabilize the security of the city," Aideed said at a news conference.

Thursday, gunshots punctuated the muezzin's call to prayer in the south of the city – recently a stronghold of the Islamists.

Meanwhile, Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies continued the hunt for the remnants of the Islamist militias believed to be in and around Raas Kaambooni, close to the Kenyan border.

In response, Kenya has sent troops to seal the border. The US Navy has deployed off the coast of Somalia to prevent Al Qaeda operatives or other foreign militants from escaping by sea.

With the Islamists defeated – at least for the time being – all eyes are on the old warlords who used to rule Mogadishu.

At least one says he has no intention of handing over his weapons until the city is secure.

Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, who commands 1,500 men, says his force exists to protect his kinsmen from their rivals in Mogadishu's main Hawiye clan.

"If you disarm one clan, and you do not disarm the other clan, then that other clan will take the benefit of that, creating insecurity," Mr. Qanyare says. "So what I'm saying is that they must disarm simultaneously," which, he says, would require a well-coordinated nationwide program. "That cannot happen any time soon."

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