MOGADISHU - Hardline Islamists on Tuesday widened their control in central Somalia after local militiamen gave up their weapons and vowed to support the Islamists in their quest to impose Sharia law in the shattered Horn of Africa nation.
Militiamen from the dominant Hawiye clan handed over at least 50 battlewagons - pickups mounted with machineguns - to the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS) in Adado township in the central Galgudud region.
"We came here by the wishes of the locals not by force," said Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the head of SICS.
"Our main objective is to establish an Islamic court here in central regions," said Aweys, who has set up shop in the central region, south of the semi-autonomous northeastern Somali region of Puntland, which was formerly controlled by transitional President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
Aweys said the Islamists, who control the capital Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, were aiming to extend their control to the Mugud region in their bid to stop piracy, rampant in Haradere, about 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of Mogadishu.
"We will eradicate Somali pirates by reaching where they are based including Haradere" he said.
Local leaders said they would back the Islamists, whose growing influence has threatened the authority of the transitional government, in their efforts to entrench theocracy in the country, home to about 10 million people.
"We are giving (the courts) weapons to help the enforcement of Sharia law," said Sultan Ali Ahmed Nur, a clan elder who oversaw the handing over of the weapons.
The transitional government based in the southcentral town of Baidoa, formed in Kenya in late 2004 after more than two years of peace talks, was seen as the best chance for the lawless nation to set up a functioning administration since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Since then more than 14 internationally backed initiatives have failed to produce a government, with analysts blaming unruly warlords who obtained arms and other forms of support from neighbouring countries despite a UN arms embargo.
In addition to the conflict, Somalia has been wracked by famine and floods for the better part of 15 years, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighbouring states while others embark on perilous boat rides across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.