MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Ahmed Hassan has no plans to part with his AK-47, the weapon of choice in this notoriously violent city, even now that a legitimate government is functioning here for the first time in more than a decade.
“I won’t do it,” Hassan said Wednesday, tugging on his gray beard. “For 16 years this country has been in chaos. It would be suicide.”
From freelance gunmen on the streets to women selling mangoes by the sea, everybody seems to have a weapon in Mogadishu. Many in the Somali capital say they would rather protect themselves for now than trust the government forces who captured the city from Islamic militants just last week.
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi has called for residents to turn in all their weapons by today. After that, he said, his forces will “forcibly extract” them.
The country’s police commander – who has only about 1,000 officers under his control, none of them yet in Mogadishu – admits he’s outgunned.
“I cannot say there is a viable police operation in Mogadishu,” Ali Mohamed Hassan Loyan told The Associated Press during a trip to a police recruitment center in Mogadishu where about 100 men, most of them older than 50, were signing up. “We are depending on the military.”
Gedi has said his military forces, backed by Ethiopian troops with tanks and MiG fighter jets, have neutralized the Islamists over the past two weeks and forced them to give up or scatter into the bush. Yesterday, the government claimed it captured two more southern towns from the militants and said its forces were headed toward a third.
In Washington yesterday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. Navy vessels were deployed off the coast of Somalia looking for al-Qaida and other militants allied with the Islamists who may be trying to escape.
Ethiopia has promised to withdraw its troops from Somalia as soon as possible, and many Somalis fear that when they do, there will be a power vacuum and even a return to the anarchy and warlord rule of the past.
Somalia’s last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but has been weakened by internal rifts.
The intervention of Ethiopia late last month prompted a military advance that was a stunning turnaround for the government, which is seeking international peacekeepers to help restore order.
In the meantime, the Bakaara Market in downtown Mogadishu is doing brisk business in weapons. The market is a network of narrow, dusty streets, with rickety wooden stands selling Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns and hand grenades.
By yesterday, only a handful of people had heeded Gedi’s demand and turned in any weapons. Twenty freelance militiamen turned in 20 small guns and a “technical” _ a truck mounted with machine guns.
“I got tired working for my clan,” said Mohamed Mohamud Hassan, the militia’s leader. “Now I can work for the nation.”
But those arms barely register in Somalia’s ocean of guns.
“Nobody wants to totally surrender their weapons,” said Sacida Gedi Hassan, a merchant at Bakaara. “If we hand over our weapons, we’ll be vulnerable.”
Loyan, the police commander, said safety isn’t the only reason for disarmament. His forces are so desperate, he said, they will eventually need to commandeer the weapons now hidden away in Mogadishu’s homes and businesses.
“During the civil war, the guns spread throughout the country,” said Loyan, who returned to Mogadishu last week for the first time since 1991. “Now we just need to find them. We are going to have to use the guns that we collect.”
His police force is not up to the task just yet.
“As you can see, these are very old people,” Loyan said at the recruitment center, gazing at the rag tag crowd over his wire-rimmed glasses. “Even women are here.”
Madino Mohamed Farge, 46, said she’s joining the police because she wants a job _ an impossible dream under the Council of Islamic Courts, the radical militia the government chased from the capital and much of southern Somalia.
“Of course I couldn’t work under the Islamic courts,” she said. “We were hated by them.”
The Islamic group’s strict interpretation of Islam drew comparisons to the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, although many Somalis credited the council with bringing a semblance of order to the country.
The Council of Islamic Courts terrified residents into submission with the threat of public executions and floggings. And now that it’s on the run, the group is threatening an Iraq-style guerrilla war using fighters they claim are hiding in Mogadishu.
Islamic courts spokesman Abdirahin Ali Mudey suggested this week that his forces might use the abundance of available weaponry to disrupt any attempts to pacify the city.
“Somalia has weapons everywhere, and we are everywhere in the country,” he said.
That alarming prospect is yet another reason residents don’t want to give up their guns, and even the police commander can understand.