Islamist militias in Somalia on Thursday continued their steady and surprisingly uncontested march toward the capital, Mogadishu, capturing a small town on the outskirts of the city.
Several dozen Islamist fighters poured into Elasha Biyaha, which is 11 miles southwest of Mogadishu, after government-allied militias fled. No shots were fired, but residents feared it was only a matter of time.
“Many people are now on the verge of fleeing,” said Yusuf Abdi Nur, a shopkeeper in Elasha Biyaha.
The tense but bloodless capture of Elasha Biyaha was a carbon copy of what happened in Merka, a strategic port town, on Wednesday, when hundreds of heavily armed Islamist militants took over the town after government-allied troops beat a hasty retreat.
But the siege of Elasha Biyaha on Thursday was carried out by a different wing of the Islamist movement, according to residents and the Islamists themselves.
What seems to be emerging is an accelerating scramble among Somalia's rival Islamist factions to seize control of areas that the weak transitional government can no longer defend.
The government has been hobbled by infighting and plagued by defections to the Islamists and seems on the brink of collapse.
Many towns in southern Somalia, including Merka, Kismayu, Qoryoley and Buulo Mareer, are now firmly in the hands of the Shabab, the most militant wing of the Islamists and a group the Bush administration has designated a terrorist organization.
The Shabab commanders are fighting to turn Somalia into an Islamic state and they often impose strict Islamic law in their zones of control.
On Thursday, residents said the newly arrived clerics in Merka announced that all shops from now on would be closed during prayer time.
But other parts of Somalia – such as Belet Weyne on the Ethiopian border, and Jowhar, north of Mogadishu – are now falling under the control of a more moderate insurgent group, the Islamic Courts Union. This group receives strong support from Somalia's influential business community, and often the population.
In Mogadishu, the government is clinging to a few shrinking enclaves, like the port, airport and the presidential palace – all of which are frequently shelled.
Much of the rest of the city is controlled by Islamist groups and clan militias.
On Thursday, Abdirahin Isse Adow, a spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union, said it was his group that had taken over Elasha Biyaha, in order to “bring back peace and security.”
“We don't want these people to feel insecurity, then evacuate,” he said, referring to intense fighting earlier in the year that displaced hundreds of thousands of Somalis.
Many residents said they were happy to see the Islamic gunmen.
The Islamic Courts Union and the Shabab used to be allies. In the summer of 2006, their combined forces ousted the predatory warlords that had controlled Mogadishu. For the first time since Somalia's central government collapsed in 1991, many Somalis said they experienced peace.
But a few months later, Ethiopian forces routed the Islamist troops and brought Somalia's transitional government to Mogadishu, which set off some of the most intense warfare Somalia has ever seen.
Thousands of civilians have been killed since early 2007, with different Islamist groups waging relentless attacks on government and Ethiopian forces and sometimes battling it out themselves.