MOGADISHU - Scores of Somali residents have fled the warlord stronghold of Jowhar, fearing a bloody offensive for control of the town by Islamic militia who took Mogadishu two days ago.
Gunmen loyal to sharia courts seized the capital on Monday from a self-styled anti-terrorism coalition of warlords, widely believed to be backed by Washington.
Their victory came after fierce fighting that had killed 350 people since February.
Locals said the warlords were preparing to defend their last redoubt of Jowhar, 90km north of the capital, including an advance line outside the town.
"There are so many fighters and weapons in Jowhar but most of them have been taken to the Congo military camp 5 km away," Abdi Warsame, a farmer, said by telephone.
Fighters loyal to Jowhar warlord Mohamed Dheere had been reinforced by allies defeated in Mogadishu and the strategic town of Balad, on the road north, which fell on Sunday.
"Some people have started fleeing Jowhar for fear of the fighting," Warsame said. "Most people are saying they have no option but to support whoever takes over Jowhar."
Islamic militiamen said their men, camped south of Jowhar, have been ordered to prevent planes from landing at the town's airstrip to block any escape by the warlords.
Political analysts say if the Islamic militia captures Jowhar, they will control most of the south of Somalia, raising questions about whether they will help install a weak interim government in the capital or set up a rival administration.
The government, too weak to enter Mogadishu, has been based in the provincial town of Baidoa since February.
The Islamic victory dislodged warlords from Mogadishu for the first time since they ousted military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, but clan fighters vowed to reclaim lost ground.
Ali Nur, a warlord fighter, said a new war against the Islamic side would be waged by the Sa'ad clan of slain warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.
"We are strengthening our defences, digging trenches and putting up sand bags, preparing for war as a clan and not as the coalition," Nur said in a clan district of Mogadishu.
The United States said on Wednesday it might be open to dealing with the Islamic militia, possibly signalling a new approach to Somalia which Washington fears may become a base for terrorists.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington the administration would "reserve judgment" about the group.
"I think that as a matter of principle that we would look forward to working with groups or individuals who have an interest in a better, more peaceful, more stable, secure Somalia... who are also interested in fighting terrorism," he said when asked if Washington would deal with the militia.
Washington, which has shied away from direct involvement since a humiliating 1994 exit of US and UN troops, has refused to discuss reports that is funnelling US$100,000 ($161,420) a month to warlords, but says it will support anyone fighting terrorism.