ISLAMIC militias in Somalia yesterday seized the town of Jowhar, the last stronghold of a United States-backed alliance of secular warlords who were driven from the capital, Mogadishu, last week.
The town's capture, after most of the warlords had fled, gives the militias control of nearly the whole of southern Somalia and raises the question of whether they will help the weak interim government or impose Islamic rule.
Residents said fighters linked to the Islamic Courts Union had seized Jowhar airport to the west of the town, about 55 miles from Mogadishu. They also entered from the south, sending terrified locals fleeing as they battered the town with heavy artillery and machineguns.
Suffering the same fate they faced in Mogadishu, the warlords' fighters abandoned their weapons and fled. "Islamic militias have entered the town and the warlord militias have defected," Mohamed Abdi, a resident, said. "After they seized Jowhar airport, they seized the town."
Islamic militia sources in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, said four people had been killed and up to 18 wounded. More than 350 people have died since February as the militias took on the warlords' self-styled anti-terrorism forces.
Yesterday the country's parliament approved plans to invite foreign peacekeepers to help the interim government assert its increasingly doubtful relevance. However, that move may anger the Islamic militias' leaders.
President Abdullahi Yusuf's government, whose armed force consists of little more than the his personal bodyguard, has watched from the sidelines in recent months as the Islamic forces have moved to take control of southern Somalia.
Yesterday's assault appeared to be an attempt to deliver a final blow to the much-weakened warlords, whose fortunes as feudal rulers of patches of Somalia for the past 15 years have taken a sharp turn for the worse.
The Islamic Courts Union and its allies now control all of southern Somalia, except Baidoa, the town where the weak transitional government sits. The north-east is run by an autonomous government allied to president Yusuf's administration, while central Somalia, to which some warlords have fled, is controlled by several groups.
Earlier, the warlords reiterated that they were defending Somalia from fighters wanting to set up an Islamic state. They have accused the militias of harbouring al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia's lawless vacuum, a charge they deny.
"Those who are attacking us are Islamic fundamentalist militias who are trying to install an Islamic state," Hassan Dhicisow, a Jowhar militia commander, said.
Hours before fighting began in Jowhar, four warlords who had gone there from Mogadishu fled the town, and a key ally said he was abandoning their cause.
"I have decided to give up my membership in the anti-terrorism alliance after pressure from my clan," Colonel Abdi Hassan Awale, a former Somalia police chief, said.
Abdulahi Dahir, one of the administrators of Jowhar, said former ministers Bootan Isse Alim and Mohamed Qanyare had fled their base there, accompanied by two others.
Analysts say the warlords are increasingly isolated, especially after east African nations imposed sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freeze, at talks in Nairobi.
The warlords had ruled Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous cities, since 1991, when the former dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, was deposed, ushering in an era of anarchy.
After taking Mogadishu, the Islamic group sent a letter proclaiming it was not an enemy of the US.
The US administration has not publicly confirmed or denied that it has been backing the warlords, but officials have privately confirmed there has been co-operation with the warlords as part of the global war on terrorism.